Most of the technology we use today seems to require a degree of trust between you and the company providing the service. When it comes to things like Siri, Cortana, or Amazon’s Alexa, things can get even trickier because in order to provide the convenience of responding to verbal requests the devices in question must always be listening. The question is just how much the device is listening, and what the provider–whether Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, or some other company–does with that information beyond its intended use.
If you have an Amazon Echo or Echo Dot in your home, you know that simply uttering the word “Alexa” brings the device to life so it can respond to your requests and commands. Law enforcement officials in Bentonville, Arkansas are hoping that Alexa is always listening and recording voices, though, and has asked Amazon to turn over data in an effort to solve a murder crime. The idea that Alexa is always listening or may somehow incriminate you is a concern for owners of the Amazon IoT (Internet of Things) devices.
We just acquired both an Echo and an Echo Dot in our home. The devices are pretty awesome, really. The microphone’s ability to pick up the word “Alexa” being spoken—at almost any volume and from almost anywhere in the house—is amazing. I can ask Alexa to give me the current news or weather information, play some music, answer questions like “How many ounces are in a pint?” or “What is the distance between Venus and Neptune?”. Using the add-on Alexa Skills, I can also say things like “Alexa, have the Neato clean the house” to activate our Neato Connected robot vacuum.
The question, however, in the wake of the request from Bentonville police, is just how much is Alexa listening and can that listening infringe on personal privacy or be used against you by law enforcement?
“Privacy and security of IoT is big right now following recent attacks like the Mirai botnet and malware targeting specific brands of smart TVs,” declared Cris Thomas, a respected security expert and spokesperson for Tenable Network Security. “While I can’t speak with authority on Alexa specifically, one of the privacy risks of IoT devices is that they are always listening.”
I reached out to Amazon for comment. An Amazon spokesperson informed me, “Amazon will not release customer information without a valid and binding legal demand properly served on us. Amazon objects to overbroad or otherwise inappropriate demands as a matter of course.”
Amazon also pointed to a very helpful Alexa and Alexa Device FAQ page that provides more detail on how the Echo devices work. More importantly, it also provides information for how to shut off the Echo / Echo Dot microphone if you don’t want Alexa to listen at all, or review and delete things Alexa may have recorded you saying.
Obviously, the Echo and Echo Dot microphones must be active in order for the devices to hear you say “Alexa” from across the room. Unless you say “Alexa”, press the button on top of the device, or hold down the button on an Amazon remote, though, that listening is only local and is not stored. You will know when the device is streaming audio and storing what you say in the cloud because the blue ring on top of the Echo or Echo Dot will be illuminated.
Read the full story on Forbes: How Amazon Echo Users Can Control Privacy.