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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.
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 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, 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.
The Echo Look, one of Amazon’s newest devices, 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 — 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) and the smaller Echo Spot both have screens and cameras. These allow you to do all sorts of tasks 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 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) 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 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, 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.
Buy an Echo Spot
Feel it's eery gaze
As it judges your linen
Buy new linen, then
Receive ads for linen
It's watching you#becauseprose
— Max (@Max_TWS) September 28, 2017
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 imagine, several major retailers are ecstatic to work with Amazon to get their ads into the Echo.
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.
Of course, most Amazon devices are still solid. But there’s no getting around their true purpose:
- When you buy a Kindle, you’ll start buying digital books from Amazon.
- The failed Fire Phone was built around a feature called Firefly that let you scan objects and buy them on Amazon.
- Dash Buttons and the Dash Wand let you order more products from Amazon with extreme ease.
- Amazon Prime lets you pay Amazon so that, among other benefits, buying from Amazon is faster.
- With an Echo in your home, Amazon hopes you’ll use the convenience to order groceries from it (via voice) instead of buying them in a store.
Amazon makes it too easy to spend money. The “Buy now with 1-Click” button actually means “Hurry up! Before you change your mind!”
— Chase Flanery (@chase_flanery) December 17, 2017
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, 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, and even for casual use its music-playing abilities and variety of skills 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!
And keep in mind that Alexa built into a non-Amazon device like the Facebook Portal can raise privacy concerns, too.