7 Ways Alexa and Amazon Echo Pose a Privacy Risk
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This might come as a surprise, but you know that Amazon Echo device across the room? It’s a networked microphone feeding data back to a massive central location, which might come with some privacy risks.

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Crazy, right?

Whether you weren’t aware or buried your head in the sand when presented with the privacy risks of using Alexa, it’s something important every Echo owner should consider. Here are seven privacy invasions possible when you own an Amazon Echo device.

1. It’s Always Listening

One of the most common knocks against the Echo Let's Face It: Amazon Echo's Alexa Is Stupid Let's Face It: Amazon Echo's Alexa Is Stupid There's no doubt voice-controlled assistants are the future, but is Alexa the solution? Perhaps not. In this article, I'm going to argue Alexa is actually rather stupid. Read More is that it’s “always listening.” While this is true, most people don’t understand what exactly Alexa is listening for.

Unless you have the Mute toggle enabled, your Echo is always listening for the wake word Amazon Echo Has an Awesome New Wake Word Amazon Echo Has an Awesome New Wake Word Until now, Amazon's Echo has only had three wake words. They've just added a fourth, which is a real treat for Star Trek fans. Here's how to start using it. Read More , Alexa. Your device locally processes the audio it hears and deletes the running buffer of audio a few seconds after it picks it up.

So Amazon can’t hear everything you’re saying — that information never leaves your device. If it did, Amazon would be completely overwhelmed by the sheer amount of audio from every Echo.

However, once the Echo hears Alexa, it sends your following command to Amazon’s servers, processes it, and then your Echo plays the answer.

We don’t want to overblow the risks of “always listening,” but we can’t pretend there aren’t any, either. Companies are infamous for doing something shady and then apologizing later when they’re caught. Who’s to say Amazon doesn’t upload a few extra seconds of audio before Alexa to see what you were talking about before your command? It would be easy to do.

2. New Echo Devices Have a Camera

As if having an always-on microphone wasn’t enough, how about adding a camera too? Even if you’re comfortable with the potential privacy invasions of a microphone, a camera is on an entirely different level Why You Should Disable or Cover Your Webcam Right Now Why You Should Disable or Cover Your Webcam Right Now If you aren't careful, hackers can easily gain access to your webcam and spy on you without your knowledge. So you have two options: disable the camera or cover it up. Read More .

The Echo Look, one of Amazon’s newest devices The Amazon Echo Look Gives You Fashion Advice The Amazon Echo Look Gives You Fashion Advice The Amazon Echo Look is a hands-free camera designed to dole out fashion advice to those who need it. Useful? Possibly. Niche? Probably. Narcissistic? Definitely. Read More , has a camera designed to take regular pictures of you and help you get fashion advice. While its intended use might be great, are you comfortable having a camera in your living room that could capture pictures of your children and store them on Amazon’s servers? How would you feel if the bedroom camera went off and captured your spouse in their underwear?

While the Look is solely for fashion now, a software update could add more functionality to help Amazon identify even more data about you. Algorithms could analyze a picture and notice that you’re almost out of paper towels in your kitchen, then recommend you buy some on Amazon. Or what if the camera started to identify changes in you over time, like weight gain/loss or changes in skin condition? That’s a lot of data you’re willingly handing over.

In 2012, Target was able to identify that a young woman was pregnant and sent her coupons for baby-related items in the mail. It did so by tracking her purchasing habits 4 Machine Learning Algorithms That Shape Your Life 4 Machine Learning Algorithms That Shape Your Life You may not realize it but machine learning is already all around you, and it can exert a surprising degree of influence over your life. Don't believe me? You might be surprised. Read More — her father didn’t even know she was pregnant. This happened more than five years ago, and Target didn’t have voice data or photos to help deduce the change.

Imagine what they mean for purchase habit-tracking now. It’s a whole new world.

3. The Creepy Drop-In Feature

The Look isn’t the only camera-equipped Echo device. Amazon’s Echo Show (our review Seeing Is Believing: The Amazon Echo Show Review Seeing Is Believing: The Amazon Echo Show Review Does a voice assistant speaker really need a touchscreen? The $230 Amazon Echo Show certainly makes a compelling case, with video flash briefing skills, song lyrics, and on-demand streaming of supported security cameras. Read More ) and the smaller Echo Spot Everything You Should Know About the Amazon Echo Spot Everything You Should Know About the Amazon Echo Spot Want a quick primer on everything you should know about the newest member of the Amazon Echo family? Here's what the Amazon Echo Spot can do for you! Read More both have screens and cameras. These allow you to do all sorts of tasks How to Set Up and Use Your Amazon Echo Show How to Set Up and Use Your Amazon Echo Show Just purchased a new Amazon Echo Show? Here's a step-by-step guide for everything you need to know to get it set up and working perfectly! Read More that the standard Echo devices can’t do, including video chats. They also include a feature called Drop-In that’s a privacy invasion waiting to happen.

Basically, Drop-In allows you to video call a trusted friend without them confirming the call. Normally, when you initiate a call, the other party must accept. But if you enable Drop-In for a certain user, calling them will allow you to start seeing video from their Echo after a few seconds of a “frosted glass” view.

Amazon says this feature is designed for parents checking in on their babies 8 Tech Products to Keep Your Baby Room (and Baby) Safe and Secure 8 Tech Products to Keep Your Baby Room (and Baby) Safe and Secure Bringing baby home can be a scary experience, but these ten tech products can provide you with much-needed peace of mind about the safety and security of your home. Read More or to make chatting with elderly parents simple. But enabling this, even with a family member you trust, can still be a privacy concern. What happens if there’s a guest at your friend’s house and he decides to start a live-video feed into your home? Or what if you don’t realize someone is Drop-In calling when you’re not decent?

Like most features of technology, this one adds convenience in exchange for less privacy/security.

4. Your Discussions Are Recorded

We discussed Alexa’s listening habits earlier, but there’s another key factor. When you issue a command to your Echo, Amazon keeps a recording of what you said and Alexa’s response tied to your account. You can actually go back and listen to these (or delete them How to Delete Your Amazon Echo Voice Data How to Delete Your Amazon Echo Voice Data The Amazon Echo only records and stores the wake word and the voice command that follows. You can see the complete record of the voice requests and delete them if you are overly suspicious. Read More ) later.

While you can delete them anytime, obviously having a record of what you’ve said to your Echo could violate your privacy at some point. Anyone with your phone could read through what you’ve recently said and gain insight about what’s troubling you or what you’re interested in. And of course, it’s all stored on Amazon’s servers for analysis.

5. They’re Susceptible to Hacking

So far, we’ve only discussed scenarios where the Echo is used as intended. But there’s a darker side to this, too — hacking could let malicious folks take over your smart device and use its microphone and camera for dirty purposes. Wired explained how one security researcher could turn an Echo into a wiretap just by getting his hands on it.

This isn’t something a hacker could do in 30 seconds with your back turned, but it demonstrates the vulnerabilities of the Echo. Buying a secondhand Echo unit from eBay or other used marketplaces 7 Security Reasons Why You Should Avoid eBay 7 Security Reasons Why You Should Avoid eBay In the last few years, eBay has been hit with seemingly endless hacks, data breaches, and security flaws, which they've struggled to deal with. Are eBay trustworthy, or should you avoid shopping with them? Read More could very well net you a compromised device.

And there’s no telling the kind of hacks that people could come up with in the future. As the Echo grows in popularity, it will attract more attention from people with nefarious intentions.

6. It Introduces New Forms of Advertising

The Echo introduces a unique landscape for ads that doesn’t work on other platforms. Many services with ads feature them as the first results when you search, with the actual content underneath them — Google and Amazon both do this. Most people know how to spot ads and simply scroll past them.

But on the Echo, where you shop by voice 4 Big Problems With Alexa Voice Shopping and How to Fix Them 4 Big Problems With Alexa Voice Shopping and How to Fix Them Amazon's Echo devices can order you products with just your voice. Here are some big risks and potential issues you should know about before you jump into this feature. Read More , this doesn’t really work. For instance, if you say “Alexa, I want to order paper towels,” your Echo could say “Okay, how about Bounty?” If you like a specific brand, you might ask to order those instead. But people who don’t care will likely order the first brand Alexa mentions.

Additionally, Amazon is working to target you with Echo advertisements based on your shopping history. If you’ve ordered Crest toothpaste in the past, Alexa might recommend Crest-branded mouthwash. As you can image, several major retailers are ecstatic to work with Amazon to get their ads into the Echo Shopping vs. Privacy: What Does Amazon Know About You? Shopping vs. Privacy: What Does Amazon Know About You? Did you think Amazon was too noble to breach your privacy? You'd be surprised. Here's what the company knows about you, where that knowledge comes from, and how you can control it. Read More .

7. You’re Helping Amazon Sell More to You

Many of the Echo’s privacy problems come down to one simple fact:

Amazon designs its devices to make it easier for you to spend more money on Amazon The Amazon Shopping Guide The Amazon Shopping Guide This free Amazon shopping guide outlines everything you need to know to make the best use of Amazon and secure the best deals. Read More .

Of course, most Amazon devices are still solid. But there’s no getting around their true purpose:

This is absolutely true with the Echo. Amazon hopes to use what you say to Alexa, the pictures you take with your Look, and all the other interactions you have with your Echo device to build a better profile around you, serve more relevant ads How Advertisers Use Web Beacons to Track You on the Web and in Emails How Advertisers Use Web Beacons to Track You on the Web and in Emails Have you ever wondered how advertisers track you around the web? There are many methods, but the use of web beacons is one of the more common and effective. Read More , and make more money from you. If owning a device that a giant corporation uses to build an exact picture of your shopping habits isn’t an invasion of privacy, I don’t know what is.

Is the Echo Worth the Privacy Risks?

Of course, I’m not suggesting that Alexa is evil and you should throw yours in the trash right now. The Echo makes a great smart home hub How to Build an Effective and Affordable Smart Home From the Ground Up How to Build an Effective and Affordable Smart Home From the Ground Up Heard about smart homes but have no idea what they are? Interested in smart gadgets but don't know where to start? This article has everything you need to start building your own smart home. Read More , and even for casual use its music-playing abilities All the Ways to Play Music Using Your Amazon Echo and Alexa All the Ways to Play Music Using Your Amazon Echo and Alexa The Amazon Echo excels at playing music. Here are all the ways to listen to music using your Amazon Echo and Alexa. Read More and variety of skills 18 Awesome New Amazon Alexa Skills You Need to Try 18 Awesome New Amazon Alexa Skills You Need to Try The Amazon Echo's list of skills is growing all the time. Let's take a look at the most useful and silliest skills from the past few months. Read More are great fun. If you recognize the potential privacy concerns and feel the benefits outweigh the drawbacks, then enjoy your device by all means.

But it’s important to take stock of the privacy implications of these devices, especially since they contain a camera and/or microphone. No major company is immune to corruption. It’s entirely possible that Amazon (or a nefarious third party) could use the Echo devices for malicious purposes.

Do you trust your Echo device, or are the privacy concerns too great? What do you think about Amazon’s new advertising models? Share your thoughts on these points and discuss with us in the comments below!

Explore more about: Alexa, Amazon Echo, Online Privacy, Surveillance.

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  1. Julie
    May 29, 2018 at 8:34 pm

    I found a really high level security issue and reported it to Amazon. SOME HOW they pulled the recordings proving the breach and got all the information I could give them.

    Here's what happened. All the sudden one evening my dot in another room started playing music. It wasn't even my playlist. After that the one in my kitchen started answering questions when I wasn't even in the room. I just walked in when I heard her talking. The kitch echo started playing music as well. I went into my Alexa app settings option and then to the history option which keeps a running record of everything you ask Alexa. I pulled up the recording for that echo device only to hear a man's voice asking her to do stuff. The only problem is, I live alone and no men were in my home when it occurred. I know the drop in feature was suppose to be for the devices with a screen but it apparently actvates on the dots. I turned it off and so far it hasn't happened again. The first thing that came to mind was to check if Id been hacked and I wasn't, I worked in IT for 30yrs and have put several security features that would make it difficult access even my router. But apparently Echo has a breach.

  2. TheConsumer
    February 12, 2018 at 9:48 pm

    Also some skills have the ability to enable themselves without your permission. Just say "Alexa, meow" and a skill becomes installed. How many other skills have this ability and what could they be being used for? I brought this to Amazon's attention. They didn't care.

  3. The Dog
    January 16, 2018 at 2:31 pm

    The dog will bite you

  4. Sick of the click
    January 11, 2018 at 5:09 pm

    Clickbaity and incorrect. Most of these issues have been discussed at length by people who don't just write articles for clicks and aren't actually a privacy concern. Other points in the list are just hilariously bad at being a privacy "risk". If you enable Drop-In and then are worried about the privacy risk. Don't enable it! Has to be one of the most idiotic articles I've seen on this site to date...

    • Dave Parrack
      January 11, 2018 at 5:38 pm

      I don't think you understand what "clickbait" is. The headline of this articles promises seven ways the Echo and Alex pose a privacy risk, and the article delivers exactly that. You may not agree with the author, but it's certainly not clickbait.

    • TheConsumer
      February 12, 2018 at 9:49 pm

      What about a skill that enables without your permission. Say Alexa Meow and see what happenes without you even knowing.

  5. Fluffy the Cat
    January 11, 2018 at 12:17 am

    What about the mobile phones?
    Especially the kind with built-in battery?
    Why did I need to install a reed relay to switch off my phone's microphone while it sits in its holster? (For who's interested, the NO reed relay connects the microphone wire (the one that goes to the chip-set) to the ground whenever I put the phone in the holster where I placed a hard disk magnet. I can confirm it's working fine since a few months.)

    • littlewierdo
      May 24, 2018 at 3:01 am

      Umm, maybe because you want to make a speaker phone call or record a voice note without pulling your phone from the holster? I mean, its fantastic that you never need to do that, and we can argue whether users should have the ability to turn off the microphone while the phone is charging, or even debate whether the phone is really listening to everything, but the reason the microphone is on is so you can say "OK Google" or whatever it is you say to Apple's Iphone to activate it by voice, and then do further things that might require the microphone without pulling it from the dock.

  6. Chuck K.
    January 10, 2018 at 5:26 pm

    You want(ed) technology so there goes your complete privacy. When are people going to learn that doing simple human tasks is meant for HUMANS and not dumbass machines? lol