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Why does Alexa save transcripts of user conversations? This senator asked Amazon

Sen. Chris Coons wants to know why Amazon Echo users’ conversations are being saved to company servers

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, center, is pictured in the Capitol in June 2016. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, center, is pictured in the Capitol in June 2016. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

A Democratic senator sent a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos Thursday requesting information about why the company retains transcripts of conversations recorded by Amazon Echo devices, even after users have pressed “delete.”

Amazon’s voice-controlled operating system Alexa transcribes the conversations it picks up after users say a “wake word” — “Alexa,” “Echo,” “Amazon” or “computer” — or press a button to enable the Echo, according to a report by CNET. And the company saves those text files on its servers even after users opt to “delete” the audio files from the cloud, a CNET investigation revealed.

Sen. Christopher Coons, a member of the Judiciary Committee, said in a letter to Bezos that this “renders the option to delete the recording largely inconsequential.”

“For what purpose does Amazon use these transcripts?” Coons asked. 

The Democratic senator from Delaware has raised concerns about data collection by the Amazon Echo before.

Coons, along with then-Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., pressed Amazon on its privacy assurances in 2018, following a press report about a Portland family whose conversations were recorded and sent to a person in their contact list without their knowledge or consent. 

The company stated in its 2018 reply to the senators that the Echo does not stream audio to its servers “unless the wake word is detected or the action button is pressed.” It also said the company gives customers control of their voice recordings.

“Not only are customers able to see and play back the voice recordings associated with their account, customers can also delete those voice recordings one-by-one or all at once,” Amazon’s letter read.

The company did not mention the saved transcripts.

“Unfortunately, recent reporting suggests that Amazon’s customers may not have as much control over their privacy as Amazon had indicated,” Coons wrote in his letter Thursday.

An Amazon spokesman said the company is “reviewing the letter from the Senator” and working on ways to delete the transcripts entirely. 

“When a customer deletes a voice recording, we also delete the corresponding text transcript associated with their account from our main Alexa systems and many subsystems, and have work underway to delete it from remaining subsystems,” the spokesman said in a statement. 

Users can delete the audio files through the Alexa app and on its website.

Coons requested a response from the company by June 30.

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