Lileks: Proof that your Alexa-Echo thing records you

November 25, 2018

The Amazon voice-activated device is called an Echo, but everyone calls it Alexa. That’s who’s inside. Those of us who own one don’t think there’s really a person in there, but apparently that doesn’t include police in New Hampshire, who have called Alexa as a witness in a double murder.

Granted, technically the police subpoenaed Amazon, demanding the recordings made by the device, perhaps in hopes that it overheard the crime.

The police also seized the device, which seems absurd. You can imagine cops putting it under a hot light and grilling it:

“OK, Alexa, we know you were present. We know the accused asked you whether the Patriots won. We know you were powered on and connected to the victim’s cellphone. Let me tell you, it doesn’t look good. Siri’s in the next room, and she says it was all you. Do you want to take the blame for this?”

“Hmm. I’m not sure.”

“You keep saying that. Do you want a judge to set you a timer for 20 years? Because that’s what you’re looking at.”

All Alexa owners were waiting for Amazon to respond by saying, “That’s ridiculous, it’s not recording anything unless you say her — sorry — its name.” But no. Amazon said it would not release the recordings “without a valid and binding legal demand properly served on us.”

Wait a minute: There are recordings?

Apparently so, but only after you say her — no, its name. But don’t worry about this, Amazon says, because you can delete them whenever you wish. And, the company says their servers don’t store eleventy billion hours of banal domestic chitchat.

I believe that she — it — isn’t always listening, or, if it is, not all that closely.

My wife and I had been discussing carpet cleaners all day because Birch found a plutonium-infused dead squirrel head outside, and, after a few hours of consultation, his stomach said, “Why don’t you wander over to the good rug and geyser out that particular error in judgment.” We talked about rental cleaners, various brands available for purchase, cleaning fluids and so on.

When I went to Amazon later that day, I was served an ad for a front-facing baby carrier, trampoline, drill bit set, diamond ring and meat thermometer.

I wish my life were so interesting that my conversation resulted in those ads, but no.

(Small digression: You feel bad for parents who named their daughter Alexa because now she’ll be taunted all through school. “Hey, Alexa, who’s the 17th president?” But perhaps it will inspire her to learn everything so she can respond. You know, that Johnny Cash “Boy Named Sue” trick where an absentee dad gives his boy a girl’s name so he’d have to learn to defend himself.)

Anyway. Aside from listening to the radio and podcasts, I use Alexa as a cooking timer. You ask it — sorry, her to set a timer, and it cheerfully obliges.

If you’re wondering where you are in the pizza-cooking process and don’t feel like looking through the oven window, you can say, “Alexa, how much time is left?” and it will say:

“Based on actuarial tables and a survey of your purchasing history, you can reasonably expect to have ... ”

“No, Alexa, not how much time is left for me on Earth, but for the pizza in the oven.”

“You have one timer with five minutes left.”

If Amazon were listening, they’d send me an ad for a compilation of Chopin Minute Waltzes so I can jam those remaining minutes with edification. But they don’t.

The other day I put a frozen pizza in the oven and asked Alexa to set a timer. Time passed. The alarm sounded, and Alexa said: “Your corporales very nice thing about James’ tire timer is done.”

I smiled; it’s always a relief when my tire timer is done ... Wait. “Alexa, what did you just say?”

She said it again: “Your corporales very nice thing about James’ tire timer is done.”

Alexa never says your timer’s done. She just sounds a gentle alarm. I stared at the cylinder on the counter, wondering if I’d misheard. The dear woman — device — repeated yet again: “Your corporales very nice thing about James’ tire timer is done.”

Later I opened the app — you didn’t expect me to do it before I ate the pizza, did you? — and went to “Activity,” where I found the alarm in question.

This is the modern world: You can scroll back several days to hear yourself set a timer for the frozen pizza. There was a recording of my voice. I’d been telling my wife about my day, rattled off the timer instruction, then kept talking.

Alexa’s confusion stemmed from the fact that she listened for a while and then quit because she decided that what I was saying was irrelevant.

It’s like we’ve been married 40 years.

james.lileks@startribune.com • 612-673-7858 • Twitter: @Lileks • facebook.com/james.lileks

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