Monday, August 31, 2015 by Chris Draper
There is no question that cell phones, computers and GPS have made life easier. The challenge is balancing the benefits of technology with the risk of mass surveillance. Now, Amazon Echo adds to the list of internet-connected devices that trade privacy for comfort.(1)
Amazon Echo is an always-on mic connected to the internet. The voice-command device performs a myriad of functions, including answering questions, keeping a shopping list, playing music, giving weather updates and setting timers and alerts, as well as control smart devices. These benefits have driven many consumers to plant the listening device in their living room or bedroom.(2)
Opening the floodgates
Seven microphones are attached to the Echo so that it can hear you from any direction. The device turns on whenever you say the wake word “Alexa.” The microphone mute button sits on top, which supposedly prevents the Echo from listening to your voice.
A blue light illuminates whenever Echo is listening to your conversation. Nevertheless, some consumers have reported that the blue light turns on whenever it hasn’t been voice-activated.(1) Furthermore, turning the device off requires physically pressing the mute button. Some consumers may forget to turn off the device from across the room, which opens the risk of Echo eavesdropping on private conversations. Nor does muting the device necessarily prevent the microphone from being hacked.(3)
Always-on mics have been the demise of technological devices in the past. They provoke fears of wiretapping, either at the hands of the government or companies mining for data. These fears have only heightened in the past few years, since Edward Snowden provided documents that revealed U.S. terrorist programs were mining for personal data collected by digital companies. Internet-connected devices, like Echo, open the floodgates for mass surveillance from every corner, whether it be lowly freelance hackers, wealthy digital companies or the federal government.
Unidentified “third party services”
Echo is essentially an artificial personal assistant.(4) Nevertheless, many have grown wary about whether Echo works for consumers or Amazon. Echo records pieces of your conversation throughout the day, which are then stored and analyzed by companies. Amazon reserves the right to share your music, radio station and even zip code with “third party services.” Amazon does not specify who these third-party services might be.(5) In recent news, Amazon announced that it is letting developers use the voice-activation software behind the Echo for free.(6)
The Electric Privacy Information Center, a public interest research group based in Washington, D.C., is a forerunner in the major privacy and civil liberties debate. The organization is pushing for higher security standards and tighter restrictions on the use and stockpiling of private information gathered by internet-connected devices.(1)
The organization states that they believe it is misleading for companies to only inform consumers about the benefits of a web-based technology without also noting the risks. Had the customer known about the risks carried by the technology, they may have not purchased the product. Although there are multiple benefits attached to Echo, many people are not aware of the risks attached to the device as well.
The FTC recommends companies selling internet-connected devices should store as little personal information as possible, and delete that information once it no longer serves a specific purpose.(1)
Reviews for Echo have so far been positive. It can be purchased on Amazon for $179.99. The responsibility falls on consumers to research the risks attached to the Echo prior to making a purchase. Any sort of microphone, or new technology in general, is bound to have hiccups at first. If you want to prevent spying, know what you’re buying.