The Amazon Echo is making headlines in Arkansas as evidence in a first-degree murder case. The case brings to light possible privacy concerns surrounding the Echo speaker.
Digital assistants such as Alexa, Siri, and Assistant are becoming commonplace in the Internet of Things, but we often overlook the inner-workings of these AIs. Sure, it’s convenient to be able to talk to a computer to control it, but developers have had to make AI that can listen for that convenience to be possible.
If an AI can listen, what will it hear? That question is being asked by many, including Arkansas police. Recently law enforcement seized an Amazon Echo speaker as part of an ongoing murder investigation, and Amazon might have pertinent information collected from that speaker within their servers.Recently Arkansas law enforcement seized an Amazon Echo speaker as part of an ongoing murder investigation.Click To Tweet
The Echo is Listening
The Amazon Echo uses a sophisticated microphone system that can pick up audio from anywhere in the room, and it uses cloud-based processing to listen and respond to spoken commands and queries. The device is essentially always listening to the user, processing non-commands along with commands constantly so that it can learn the difference between the two.
You can mute the device, or even turn it off, but that means that it won’t get the input that is necessary to making a virtual assistant that can intuit what you want from it. Furthermore, where does it store the massive amounts of information about your questions and commands? The short answer is a server owned by Amazon, and the long answer is well above most people’s pay grade.
If listening in on you isn’t enough, keep in mind that the Echo and other digital assistants also report location data. How else can they tell you what the weather is like outside?
Should we be Concerned?
Let’s not stoke the fires of conspiracy just yet.
According to Amazon, they are not trying to record or listen in on private conversations in the home. That statement is backed up by simply having a mute button on the speaker that renders it unable to hear anything. Back in Arkansas, Amazon provided authorities with the account details and purchases of the prime suspect, but they did not give any of the actual voice queries.
“According to Amazon, they are not trying to record or listen in on private conversations in the home.”
Despite Amazon’s intentions and public statements, however, there is a larger online rights issue at stake. We know precious little about what Amazon is doing with the information stored on its servers. If humans have a right to privacy, then they have a right not to share what they’ve been telling their digital assistant.
The Echo is an exciting new technology, but to work it has to listen to the user and store information in the cloud. For the more paranoid among us, that might mean skipping the Echo. For most of us, that sounds no more dangerous than accepting an end user license agreement. As always, use your discretion, and make sure you know if your new tech is something with which you can be comfortable.