Is Amazon Listening to Your Conversations Through the Echo?

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We’re not good at speaking the correct Christmas songs into Alexa. But wait: why is Amazon tracking what we’re saying? What else are they listening to?

Amazon scored a huge hit with Alexa-powered devices, including the Echo and the Dot.  And this could be the Christmas that makes it a household name (literally).

Other companies are getting in line behind the voice-powered juggernaut.  Rival speaker company Sonos even signed a deal with the company, bringing Alexa voice control compatibility to Sonos devices.

The company’s new music service, Amazon Music Unlimited, also brought a lower price plan for Alexa enabled devices.  But Alexa commands can be used for a myriad of other services, including Spotify.  Eventually, Amazon wants it to be used for everything.

But wait: where are all those requests going?

That was all-but-answered this morning, when the e-commerce giant released a list of misquoted Christmas songs.  Google tracks its searches, and of course, so does Amazon — typed or spoken.  It also turns out a large percentage of people search by lyrics, with Amazon is collecting all of them.

And what are we blabbing?

According to the ‘Harris Poll’ survey sent to Digital Music News this morning, more people misquote Twelve Days of Christmas, while 28% of people surveyed sang “three turtle doves and two French hens.”  The correct lyrics are “three French hens, two turtle doves.”

Jingle Bells lands in second place. People sang “cocktail rings” instead of “Bells on bobtail rings.”

Here are some other fun facts, thanks to your favorite eavesdropping mega-corporation:

  • 64% of Americans cited in the study prefer to jam out to holiday tunes at home.
  • The most popular songs include Jingle Bells and It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.
  • The most requested Alexa songs on Amazon Music are Jingle Bells and Last Christmas.
  • The company states that most customers listening to Music Unlimited just ask for a song lyric. Then, the service plays their favorite music.
  • 41% of Americans prefer listening to Jingle Bells. 40% prefer It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.
  • Washington DC ranked the highest in terms of Christmas Music listeners.  The service saw a nearly 400% increase starting on Thanksgiving. Connecticut, New Jersey, and Rhode Island followed closely behind.

According to data, 50% of Americans start listening to holiday music as early as the week of Thanksgiving.  On Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, Christmas music triples compared to the previous week.

And with that, here’s the list of the most misquoted holiday songs, along with the exact misquoted lyrics.  That you, the Alexa user, generated.

  1. Twelve Days of Christmas”: “On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me, four calling birds, three turtle doves, two French hens and a Partridge in a pear tree” — 28%
  2. Jingle Bells”: “Bells on cocktail rings” — 25%
  3. The Christmas Song”: “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your toes” — 22%
  4. Silent Night”: “Round John Virgin, mother and child” — 21%
  5. Winter Wonderland”: “Later on, we’ll perspire” — 21%
  6. Deck the Halls”: “Don we now our day of peril” — 20%
  7. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”: “Olive the other reindeer” — 19%
  8. Frosty the Snowman”: “Corncob pipe and a butt and nose” — 17%
  9. All I Want For Christmas”: “All I want for Christmas is shoes” — 16%
  10. Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer”: “Grandma got run over by a reindeer walkin’ home from outhouse on Christmas Eve” — 16%

The survey begs the question: are we sacrificing privacy to ease of use?  Amazon provided the results from December 8-12 among 2,054 U.S. adults, aged 18 and older, who used the service. Both Google and even the NSA follow a similar methodology.

Why are we cool with that?  Ellen Ullman, a San Francisco based writer and computer programmer warned,

“The boundary between the outside world and the self is penetrated…the boundary between your home and the outside world is penetrated.”

In Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents, Ullman spoke about handing over personal data to large companies.

“It’s going to give you services, and whatever services you get will become data. It’s sucked up…[and] a huge new profession, data science. Machine learning. It seems benign. But if you add it all up to what they know about you … they know what you eat.

Similar to George Orwell’s 1984, Ullman presented a cold reality about today’s current technological age.

“With every advance you have to look over your shoulder and know what you’re giving up – look over your shoulder and look at what falls away.”


Top image by Soukéïna Felicianne, CC by 2.0.

2 Responses

  1. Anonymous

    Sorry, but it’s easy to test. Echo does not communicate any data until it hears the wake word. It communicates via wifi which is easy to monitor.
    All those quotes obviously came from people requesting them.
    It’s like saying your home telephone (if you have one) is always listening, yes you have to pick it up and dial first, but it’s still listening right?

    There are plenty of other things to be afraid of, the Echo is not one of them- unless your friendly neighborhood hacker stole it and modified the hardware while you weren’t looking, then replaced it. He probably installed a web cam in your house at the same time.