Amazon Echo: Personal Assistant, Streaming Service, Tattle-Tale?

Amazon Echo

Just when you thought it was safe to enjoy that Amazon Echo you received for Christmas, news appears revealing that your trusty new personal assistant gadget might rat you out to the cops.

Yes, an Amazon Echo has been seized by police in Bentonville, Arkansas, and a subpoena issued to Amazon for the voice recordings made on the device by its owner, who is now facing murder charges.

How might the device be useful to prosecutors? Well, for one thing, it records everything— that’s right, the device passively records everything you say, switching to active (and save) mode when you use the word “Alexa,” to prompt a response. As New York magazine noted, “Amazon keeps all of the recordings of you asking Alexa to play WNYC or of you setting a timer for twenty minutes. You can jump into the Alexa companion app and hear all of your requests again if you want to see just how bored you sound when talking to your home voice robot.” The writer isn’t at all bothered by this Stasi-level corporate surveillance. “Sure, it’s slightly creepy—but Amazon also tracks pretty much every move you make while you’re online shopping as well.”

The case highlights yet another unintended consequence of our culture’s embrace of “smart” homes and “smart” devices: the devices might be tailored to your needs, but machines have no loyalty and can’t take the Fifth when confronted by law enforcement. As New York notes, “In the real world, many convictions rely on establishing where a suspect and their victim were on the day in question. And one of the key ways a smart home works is by keeping detailed logs of who is in your home and when they are in certain rooms.” As well, for such “smart” devices, the companies manufacturing them (ie. Amazon) have either dumb or nonexistent policies for protecting the privacy of the people who purchase them.

Of course, it’s a good thing when law enforcement can make use of technology to help capture and convict a murderer (as long as we don’t start straying into Minority Report territory). But for the rest of us, if you value your privacy at home, you might think twice before buying that “smart” fridge, or “smart” thermostat, or home security system, or baby monitor. All of these “smart” devices have proven shockingly easy to hack, despite assurances by the companies that make them, such as Google-owned Nest, that they are secure.

There’s a simple solution, of course: opt out of “smart” devices entirely. As New York magazine reported, “During a well-publicized Nest system outage in January of this year, which left millions without the ability to control the temperatures in their homes, one man found himself on hold with the Google-owned company for hours. During that time, he walked to the local hardware store and bought a simple mechanical thermostat.

Cost of a simple thermostat? Twenty-five dollars. Cost for peace of mind knowing hackers can’t shut down your heat and Amazon can’t record your private conversations? Priceless.

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