Is Amazon listening to your phone? All the things it knows about you

Posted at 1:28 PM, Nov 22, 2019
and last updated 2019-11-22 17:17:57-05

Twana Wilson received an Amazon Echo Dot as a gift from her husband a few months back. He thought she would enjoy having Alexa play music and read her the weather forecast, but the Echo still sits in its original box, Wilson told WCPO. She won't use it.

Why not? Because like so many people, Wilson suspects Amazon is watching her, even listening to her conversations through her phone and laptop.

"I just can't get myself to do it yet," Wilson said. "I am not ready for it."

She has her reasons. She was recently chatting with a friend who was flying to Paris.

"The next day, I had a targeted ad for booking flights to Paris," Wilson said. She said she had never done any web searches and had no plans for a trip to Europe.

A week or so later, she says, she was talking with her husband about his Jeep.

"Afterward, I started having a stream of Jeep ads" she said.

She said it's the same story if she ever discusses a product with friends via text messages.

"I even get emails from Amazon saying, 'Hey, aren't you looking for this?' Actually I wasn't," Wilson said.

Like many other Amazon Prime members, Wilson is caught between the convenience of one-click everything and concerns about her privacy. Recent news reports that Amazon employees listen to conversations recorded by Echo devices, supposedly to improve the voice recognition, only worsened her sense of dread.

And after telling us about the Echo Dot she is afraid to install, she noticed an ad for an Echo Dot appear on her laptop.

Related: Researchers used a laser to hack Alexa and other voice assistants 

How we love and hate Amazon

The fears make perfect sense, according to cybersecurity consultant Dave Hatter. He says many Amazon customers both love and hate the company because of the way it is so present in our lives.

Many Prime Members, he says, use Amazon every day. Not just for shopping, but to watch movies through Prime Video, read books on Kindle, listen to music through Alexa's playlist and monitor their house and baby through the Ring doorbell and camera system.

"Think about it," Hatter said. "They own Kindle. They own Whole Foods. They own Ring, the 'internet of things' doorbell. The Amazon Fire tablet. So you couple all these things together and they have an enormous view into everything you are doing online," Hatter said.

If you use Amazon extensively, Hatter said, "they know where you are, they know what you've read, what you've watched, what you did ... all these kind of things."

And if you have an Echo device with Alexa listening, Hatter says it raises a whole new set of troubling questions.

"Is this thing listening all the time?" Hatter asked. "How long are these recordings stored? Who has access to these recordings?"

He says recent explanations by Amazon that it listens to improve the user experience did little to ease the concerns of many customers.

As an example, Hatter did an Amazon search for tool kits, and sure enough, tool kit ads started appearing everywhere in sight.

"If I go here and click on this rotary tool kit, they know I must be interested in rotary tool kits," Hatter said.

Things you can do

So what can you do to limit what Amazon knows?

Hatter says there are things you can do, but a lot of it revolves around how you use Amazon's particular offerings.

Hatter says the simplest things you can do are:

  • Use a variety of electronic ecosystems, not just Amazon (or Apple or Google), so no single system knows all your habits and interests.
  • Amazon Prime member? Consider watching movies on Netflix and Apple TV, not Amazon Prime Video.
  • If you have Alexa on an Echo device, Hatter says go in to its settings and delete recorded conversations.
  • Check your phone's settings, and look for "microphone." Turn it off for all but essential features. Do you really need companies like Facebook accessing your microphone?

Hatter does all that, and makes sure he uses multiple services. He gets his music from Apple. That way Amazon doesn't know his music and movie preferences. He also does his grocery shopping at a variety of stores, so that Amazon's Whole Foods won't have a record of everything he likes to eat.

You might have heard about or seen the meme that says something to the extent of, "My wife asked me why I was speaking so softly ... I told her I was afraid who might be listening. So she laughed. Then Alexa laughed. And Siri laughed too."

It would be hysterical if it didn't have a bit of truth to it.

Wilson says even without her Echo Dot hooked up, she still wonders what Amazon, Google, Facebook and other companies know about her.

"It feels like they are listening to me, watching where I am going," she said. "There is definitely something happening."

As always, don't waste your money.

This story was originally published by John Matarese, WCPO.