At first glance, Amazon Echo looks like nothing more than a nice speaker system. However, this little device has a wide range of capabilities such as recording voice requests… as revealed in a recent murder investigation.
Amazon Echo is capable of handling what used to be human-only tasks, from controlling appliances such as a lighting or heating to household duties such as scheduling appointments and creating grocery lists. How does Amazon Echo perform all these tasks? It all happens through “Alexa,” Amazon’s intelligent personal assistant, who interprets and operates via voice command for Echo.
Some of Alexa’s more advanced tools allow Amazon Prime users to voice shop, linking Alexa to your credit card for online purchases to be completed without touching a computer. Simply put, it’s a glorified version of Siri, with a wide variety of household skills.
Its popularity has also been on the rise, and since its debut in 2014, it has sold 5.1 million devices. People have become so enamored with the high-tech functionality of the device, that they underestimate the vast amount of problems underneath the surface, particularly when it comes to privacy.
The very fact that the Echo works off of audio clips is already a warning sign. According to a post on Wired:
Whenever you make a voice request, Google Home and Alexa-enabled devices record or stream audio clips of what you say. Those files are sent to a server—the real brains of the operation—to process the audio and formulate a response. The recorded clips are associated to your user account, and that process is enabled by default.
Because their brains are located miles away, Echo and Home need an internet connection to work. They do have a very rudimentary education, though: The only spoken commands they understand on their own are “wake words” or “activation phrases,” things like “Alexa” or “OK Google.” Once you say those magic words, the voice assistants jump to life, capture your voice request, and sling it to their disembodied cloud brains over Wi-Fi.
That means their mics are listening to you even when you’re not requesting things from Alexa or Google. But those ambient conversations—the things you say before “Alexa” or “OK Google”—aren’t stored or sent over a network.
However, according to the police department of Bentonville, Arkansas, all audio files are stored. While solving a recent murder, police became aware of the fact that there was an Amazon Echo in the room during the time of the incident. They immediately issued a warrant to Amazon.com to release all recordings. Although Amazon declined twice, police have still been able to glean some information from the device. Addressing the story, a blogpost on the Slate concludes:
All of this should offer an important reminder that it’s not always wise to blindly commit to smart devices, even if you’re not planning criminal acts. In the name of providing us with easy access to information, they’re also collecting enormous amounts of information about us, information that can be put to surprising ends. As Oremus has put it, “A world of conversational machines is one in which we treat software like humans, letting them deeper into our lives and confiding in them more than ever.” Such privacy concerns, this case suggests, may well hold even for devices that aren’t explicitly designed to listen in on our lives.
Despite how fascinating new technological advances can be, we should consider how much it will cost us, not only in money, but in privacy. As more and more of these types of devices become mainstream, it is important to consider all risky aspects of the device – not just the attributes.