Alexa, how much is my privacy worth?

  • Tech News
  • Thursday, 03 Aug 2017

Amazon Echo is a hands-free speaker you control with your voice. Echo connects to the Alexa Voice Service to play music and provide information. (Amazon/TNS)

Amazon's personal digital assistant, Alexa, has been credited twice in recent weeks with helping to solve or avert crimes – including a Gloucester case that received international attention when the device is said to have recorded the voice of a young boy who broke into an apartment. 

As novel as these cases are, they raise unsettling questions about how much privacy we forfeit – willingly – to technology. 

Planted in the corner of your living room or kitchen, an Amazon Echo channels the ever-helpful Alexa, who is always eager to look up a recipe, check the weather, or perhaps order new batteries for your remote control (purchased and delivered via Amazon, of course.) Her cousins in the growing family of digital personal assistants behave much the same way. 

Yet, leaving an open mic from your home to one of the world's largest retailers – which, by the way, logs your many questions and requests – has a few pitfalls. What happens to all of that data being stored about the conversations spoken in your living room or kitchen? What happens when the device is inadvertently "awakened" and queued by a trigger word? What about guests to your home – invited or maybe otherwise – who don't realise they're being recorded? 

These questions are fraught and maybe not top of mind for the many who buy one of these devices for the sake of convenience. 

"Millions of people are putting digital assistants in their lives with no clue about the potential havoc this Trojan horse could bring," intellectual property lawyer Gerald Sauer wrote in a column for Wired last winter. "Based on what Amazon and Google say about their devices, everyone needs to recognise the unresolved legal issues involving this new technology. Beware of who, or what, is listening." 

Locally, Alexa's intervention was helpful. The Gloucester case involved a woman who'd called police three times in a week because someone was breaking into her apartment and stealing cash and electronics – including her smaller Echo device, called the Dot. 

Tracing the history of recordings made by her Dot led the woman to the voice of a nine-year-old neighbour who'd apparently been in her apartment uninvited, according to police. Face-to-face questions of the boy led officers to the items the woman said were missing, according to the police report. It's the digital analog to police breaking a case by following tracks in the snow. 

And it recalled a case earlier in July, when a digital assistant was credited with hailing sheriff's deputies in New Mexico amid a confrontation between a man and his girlfriend. 

Though Alexa and her Echo got credit for hearing something that sounded like "call 911" and raising the sheriff, observers have since noted that a smartphone likely summoned them since Alexa doesn't make calls, even to 911. 

Regardless of which robot did the good turn, you get the idea: An always listening device, forgotten about, intervenes unbidden. 

Once Amazon's drones take to the skies, one can easily imagine the Jetsons scenario in which you complain to your spouse about your headache one minute, then answer the door a few minutes later to find a rush delivery of aspirin. 

One also imagines all of the other things said in a kitchen or living room or bedroom that hopefully won't invite some kind of commercial response. So much for privacy. 

This isn't some philosophical concern – not anymore. In a recent issue, Time magazine looked at the privacy issues raised by the presence of these devices and noted a long-held legal standard that assumes someone gives up any claims to privacy once they've engaged a third party – for example, Amazon and its digital persona, Alexa. Those who turn on a device presumably know how it works, or should know, so how can they complain when it performs as advertised? 

This was the thrust of the argument made by prosecutors in Arkansas seeking access to recordings made by an Echo of a man charged with murder. 

Amazon resisted the subpoena but yielded when the accused said he wouldn't object to the release of the records. 

So, not only are Jeff Bezos and the workers in his online retail empire listening to what's happening inside your house, law enforcement could be tuning in, as well. 

It's certainly nice to check the weather forecast without picking up a phone, sitting down at a computer, turning on the television or – ahem – reading your newspaper. But at what cost? — The Salem News/Tribune News Service


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