I’ve had Alexa smart speakers for years. I bought them to make my smart home more convenient to use through voice controls. But now Alexa has me hopping mad. Why? She invaded my printer without asking my permission and started emailing me about ink. When does a voice assistant cross the line from convenience to nuisance?
Update, 9/17: An Amazon Spokesperson reached out to us, and had the following to say:
Similar to how printers are discoverable by PCs, Alexa can receive the same information over a local wifi network and help customers connect their devices. To connect a device to Alexa, customers need to use the Alexa app or say “Alexa, discover my devices.” You can find more details on how Alexa works with printers here.
The company also promised to address some of our other concerns. Going forward, when you connect a printer to Alexa, you should get a welcome email within 48 hours. In the future, the welcome email will mention information about the intention to measure ink and offer replacement cartridges. The company also took steps to prevent an overabundance of emails when multiple cartridges are low.
It’s true that computers can’t discover printers, but this is a specific action taken by the users to discover printers. The process also doesn’t automatically add a printer found on the network, users have to select the printer (if multiple printers are found) and choose to enable it.
The original report is left intact below.
An (un)Welcome Email
It all started with an innocuous email that I initially disregarded as some phishing attempt. “Thank you for connecting your HP OfficeJet Pro 8710 printer to Alexa. Alexa just made printing a whole lot easier. Now you can print documents using only your voice and compatible Echo devices.”
That is the model of printer I use. And it did come from Amazon. But I didn’t do anything 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 using just your voice, like your shopping list or a daily sudoku puzzle. Naturally, I forgot all about the email.
Alexa Spammed Me
Not long after, I got a rude reminder when a mess of emails started arriving. Every day, I started getting 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 need to replace your HP 952 Yellow Toner soon, 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 reorders to automatically receive replacements of your choice.
And if that isn’t 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 6/28/20. ”
But I didn’t. From what I can tell, at some point, I installed an unrelated smart home device and its Alexa skill. When I ran the discovery process to find “new smart home devices,” Alexa found my printer (in addition to my unrelated smart home device) and added it.
Not a Service I Want or Need
The entire thing is extremely frustrating and feels very invasive. I didn’t go out of the way to connect my printer to Alexa; Amazon did that to “help me.” It didn’t give the chance to say no or prevent the connection from happening.
Until now, I thought adding printers to Alexa was an opt-in thing because HP has an Alexa skill, which I have not installed. Even worse, the initial email didn’t tell me what Alexa really planned to do. Nowhere in that first email does it mention ink, or a warning that it will check levels and help you purchase a resupply when you need it.
If it had, I would have turned off the entire set of functionality sooner because I don’t need it. I have an HP printer, and it’s enrolled in HP’s ink replenishment service. Admittedly, I don’t like the service, but I’m stuck in a loop where I can’t get out. When my ink gets low, HP sends me more before I run out. That makes Alexa’s prodding to buy ink utterly useless.
You Can Turn The Dumb Thing Off
If I have one compliment to give Amazon at this point, it’s how painless it makes turning the emails off—well, mostly. In every single email about ink, you can find a quick link to take you to your Alexa’s notification settings to turn the blasted emails off. But what if you didn’t see that? It’s subtle, at the bottom of the email. Or what if you don’t trust clicking on links in an email to take you to account settings? Well, then it gets a little more tricky.
I spent a good half hour trying to find another way to turn off the Alexa and Printer email notifications, or just remove the printer from Alexa altogether. I went into my Alexa account online, I went into skills to see if I enabled something, I searched Google for help. All of that was a bust.
Finally, I found where to go by tapping every option 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 nearly at the bottom of the list.
Once you find the printer, you can either turn off the notifications or delete the printer entirely. I opted for the former, for now. I can’t see a use for printing by voice, but as a tech journalist, I’ll keep the option open for the future.
Alexa Lacks Transparency, and That’s Bad for Smart Homes
You might be thinking, “What’s the big deal? You got a bunch of emails, and you turned them off,” and that’s a fair point. But when I tell people, “I have a smart home” and “I have Alexa (and Google Assistant) in my home,” I commonly get the same reaction. People get creeped out by smart homes, and even more so by “speakers that are always listening.”
Your smart speaker isn’t always listening 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. That can only happen with transparency.
Alexa violated my trust, thanks to a lack of transparency. On its own, Amazon decided to connect Alexa to my printer. Just because I invited you into my home doesn’t mean I’ve permitted you to rummage through my underwear drawer. I expect you to ask permission and give me a good reason why you’d need that kind of access to my life.
Likewise, I want control over which smart home devices Alexa can access. And that’s usually how it works; I have to install a skill or take some extra step to pair the two up. But not this time—Alexa was proactive (in a bad way).
And even when Alexa provided me a reason to connect to my printer, it didn’t tell me the whole truth. Sure, fancy voice controls for my printer sounds nice. But Amazon admitted in later emails that it looked at my printer usage history to guess when I’d run out of ink, and I didn’t give permission for that either. Failing to mention that Amazon planned to check my ink status and then use that information to upsell me another product is unacceptable. As the old saying goes, “a lie of omissions is still a lie.”
Smart homes require transparency and trust, and on this occasion, Alexa did itself a disservice. I trust it less now because who knows what else in my house Amazon will decide is fair game to turn into a shopping opportunity next.