Drive for convenience has us inviting spies into our homes
Net Results: It is worth remembering our helpful friend Alexa is always listening
The new Amazon Echo Spot. The amount of data it – and its Google counterpart - collects on users should give you pause for thought. Photograph: Daniel Berman/Bloomberg
If the past year has done anything, it has brought the impact of technology firmly to the fore. A lot of that is positive in many ways; technology is a great leveller of playing fields when it comes to gaining access to education or information. But then there is the more sinister side of things, with campaigns of disinformation, fake news and attempts to hijack democratic processes.
In the middle of this is the average consumer, who just wants to get on with things and make their lives a little easier. The idea of having a voice controlled assistant to help you out with the daily grind is seductive. And two of the biggest companies in the world – Amazon and Google – are vying for control of our homes and our data.
I am guilty of opening the door to this one. Two children, one hanging off each arm, means at times, voice control is the only way I get things done. Wifi-controlled lightbulbs, audio books, a TV that can switch on – or, more importantly, off – at a voice command. I’m not the only one either. Amazon officially launched its Echo devices on the Irish market in recent weeks, but there are already plenty of Irish customers using the smart speakers. But are we sacrificing our privacy in the name of convenience?
The Echo sits in the corner silently listening for its wake word – Alexa – at which point it springs to life. It records your request, sends it to servers to process, and then provides you with the answer – or not, as the case may sometimes be.
This means, of course, that not only is it sending your voice off to be processed, but it is always listening. The Echo has a constant buffer of a few seconds that it needs to use to be able to recognise its own wake word. While those few seconds of voice recordings are deleted rather than stored on Amazon’s servers – the amount of data that would entail from every Echo device would be massive and likely unmanageable – the idea that we’ve not only installed an always-on microphone in our homes but that we’ve paid for the privilege too is slightly amusing.
And yet, we shouldn’t be really be laughing. The amount of data the Amazon Echo – and its Google counterpart - collects on users should give you pause for thought.
Go into the app and you’ll see a list of what you’ve asked the Echo to do, along with a small audio file of your command. It is intended to help you tweak Alexa and improve her accuracy. It also provides you with an alarming amount of detail into your daily life, and a trove of data for anyone to pick over. You can delete it of course, and Echo itself has a mute button that can be used to turn off the microphone. But that defeats the purpose really.
Already the Echo and its data has been the subject of a court case in the US. A prosecutor in an alleged murder investigation in Arkansas looked for data from the Echo to prove the movements of the accused.
The use of the data wasn’t really tested too much. Initially, Amazon turned down the request, but when the accused said he would give the investigation access to the recordings, Amazon handed over the data. Had the company refused, it would have been interesting to see just how far the prosecutor would have taken the case to get that data, and more importantly, if a court would have ruled against Amazon.
In the end, the case was dropped, with the prosecutor saying there was more than one reasonable explanation for the death.
A few years ago, Edward Snowden and his revelations about the NSA’s activities led to a rash of people covering webcams with tape – even Mark Zuckerberg does it – and a general awareness of how much information we were putting out there through our daily activities online.
From a world where we are convinced that the governments and their agents are eavesdropping on our conversations and gathering information on us, we’ve now come around to a point where we are actively putting devices into our homes that are constantly listening.
And yet, at least we are aware what the Echo – and Alexa – are doing. Some of the more nefarious agents can activate your camera without your knowledge, or listen through your phone’s microphone thanks to some malware hiding inside an innocuous looking app you’ve downloaded.
Still, we should not get complacent. At best, you are handing over a massive amount of data to a private company that could be used to sell you products. At worst, you are providing easy access to your daily life for anyone who gets hold of that data and gets access to your device – and that includes hackers.
I won’t be giving up my Echo devices. But I may, occasionally, remember about the mute button.