I have had Alexa smart speakers for several years. I bought them to make my smart home more comfortable to use via voice controls. But now Alexa has me jumping angry. Why? She invaded my printer without asking about my condition and started emailing me ink. When does a voice assistant cross the line from convenience to inconvenience?
A welcome email
It all started with an innocent email that I originally ignored as a phishing attempt. “Thank you for connecting your HP OfficeJet Pro 8710 printer to Alexa. Alexa just made printing a lot easier. Now you can print documents with only your voice and compatible Echo devices. ”
This is the printer model I use. And it came from Amazon. But I did nothing to connect the two. Even stranger, it said I connected them ten days before the email arrived. The email mentioned how you could print documents with just your voice, like your shopping list or a daily sudoku puzzle. Of course, I forgot all about the email.
Alexa spammed me
Not long after, I received a rude reminder when a mess of emails began to arrive. Every day I started receiving four emails: “Replace your HP 952 yellow toner soon to keep your HP OfficeJet Pro 8710 running.” One for each color and for black. Four emails in a row every day. Alexa spammed me!
Alexa noticed that you will soon need to replace your HP 952 Yellow Toner, based on your HP OfficeJet Pro 8710 usage. You can view products on Amazon.com that are confirmed to work with your device. Or you can set up smart orders to automatically receive compensation of your choice.
And if that’s not bad enough, the email actually blamed me for the spam:
“You are receiving this message because you connected your HP OfficeJet Pro 8710 to Alexa on 28/28. ”
But I did not. From what I can tell, I once installed an unrelated smart device and its Alexa capability. When I ran the discovery process to find “new smart home devices”, Alexa found my printer (besides my unrelated smart home device) and added it.
Not a service I want or need
The whole thing is extremely frustrating and feels very invasive. I did not go out of my way to connect my printer to Alexa; Amazon did it to “help me.” It did not give the chance to say no or prevent the connection from taking place.
Until now, I thought it was an opt-in thing to add printers to Alexa because HP has an Alexa skill that I have not installed. Worse, the first email did not tell me what Alexa was really planning to do. Nowhere in the first email does it mention ink or a warning that it will check levels and help you purchase a delivery when you need it.
If it had done, I would have turned off the whole set of functionality earlier because I do not need it. I have an HP printer and it is registered with the HP ink refill service. Admittedly, I do not like the service, but I’m stuck in a loop where I can not get out. When the ink runs low, HP sends me more before I run out. This makes Alexa talk about buying ink completely useless.
You can turn off the mute
If I have a compliment to give Amazon right now, it’s how painless it is to turn off emails – yes, mostly. In each individual ink email, you can find a quick link to take you to your Alexa notification settings to turn off the blown emails. But what if you did not see it? It’s subtle, at the bottom of the email. Or what if you do not trust clicking on links in an email to access your account settings? Well, then it’s getting a little trickier.
I spent a good half hour finding another way to turn off Alexa emails and printers, or simply remove the printer from Alexa completely. I went into my Alexa account online, I went into skills to see if I activated anything, I searched Google for help. All this was a bust.
Finally, I found where to go by tapping all the options I could find in the Alexa app. If you go to Device> All Devices, you can find your printer. I have 50 smart home devices, and of course my printer is almost at the bottom of the list.
After finding the printer, you can either turn off the notifications or delete the printer completely. I chose the former, for now. I can not see the use of printing by voice, but as a technical journalist I keep the option open for the future.
Alexa lacks transparency, and that’s bad for smart homes
You may be thinking, “What’s the big problem? You’ve got a lot of emails and you turned them off, ”and that’s a fair point. But when I say to people, “I have a smart home” and “I have Alexa (and Google Assistant) in my home,” I often get the same reaction. People are crawling out of smart homes and even more of “speakers that always listen.”
Your smart speaker does not always listen to every word you say. Not in the way people fear, anyway. But that fear is a problem. Smart homes and smart speakers depend on trust and a promise of privacy. It can only happen with openness.
Alexa broke my trust due to lack of transparency. On its own, Amazon decided to connect Alexa to my printer. Just because I invited you to my home does not mean I have allowed you to mumble in my underwear box. I expect you to ask permission and give me a good reason why you need that kind of access to my life.
In the same way, I want control over which smart home devices Alexa can access. And that’s usually how it works; I need to install a skill or take a few extra steps to pair the two. But not this time – Alexa was proactive (in a bad way).
And even when Alexa gave me a reason to connect to my printer, it did not tell the whole truth. Sure, nice voice controls for my printer sound nice. But Amazon admitted in later emails that it looked at my printer usage history to guess when I ran out of ink, and I did not give permission for it either. Not to mention that Amazon planned to check my ink status and then use that information to sell me another product is unacceptable. As the old saying goes, “a lie about omissions is still a lie.”
Smart homes require transparency and trust, and at this point Alexa made a bite of herself. I trust it less now because who knows what else in my house Amazon will decide is fair play to become a shopping opportunity next.