While watching the NBC Nighty News today and I saw an a story about authorities in Bentonville, Arkansas seeking the recordings from an Amazon Echo unit in connection with a murder. The authorities seem to believe that the Echo may have recorded something relevant to the murder. They have issued a warrant for Amazon to turn over the recordings. Amazon for their part is holding firm on the side of privacy, and has not yet turned over anything. The legal bar has not been met, in their opinion.
I thought this was pretty interesting, as like many people I have one of these in my house. I actually love Alexa, I find it convenient and very easy to use. Thinking about this, however, leaves me feeling that it could be spying on me. Companies like Amazon love to collect data on their customers, and as I think about it more how much easier would it be to collect info by simply passively listening in the background. Amazon makes no secret about the fact that Alexa will stream audio to the cloud, but only when the magic “Alexa” keyword is detected locally by the device. There is also an option to turn off the microphone on the device itself. I still can’t help to wonder if Amazon might be tempted to record more?
Another question that pops into my mind is what if they are recording other things? If they are, could that information fall into the hands of others? Could an out of context statement picked up by Alexa find a person in legal trouble? At the very least could it put someone under some form of scrutiny by the authorities? It’s not just Amazon that concerns me, with more and more products featuring always on listening it seems the potential for abuse is ripe. Products like Apple’s Siri, XBox Connect, Google Now and Home, to name a few, all say they will only act when you call them, and that you can trust them to do the right thing.
I think there is a real privacy concern with these products. With that said I also think I may be being a bit paranoid. I think we can mostly trust that these products are only doing what they say they do. These companies are not likely spying on us any more than they already have been. I just think it is important to take a minute of pause to acknowledge the possibilities. I wont be ditching my voice products, but I can’t help but to think more about what I say around them, and maybe you should too.