Goodbye privacy, hello ‘Alexa’: Amazon Echo, the home robot who hears it all

The Guardian has an article on the latest Amazon device to snoop on your privacy, which Amazon calls ‘Amazon Echo’. Here is part of the article. The full article is available at the link at bottom of page.

It was not that Alexa seemed human, exactly, or evoked the operating system voiced by Scarlett Johansson in the film Her, but that it – she – seemed to merit respect. Yes, partly out of anthropomorphism. And partly out of privacy concerns. Don’t mess with someone who knows your secrets.

The device, after all, was uploading personal data to Amazon’s servers. How much remains unclear. Alexa streams audio “a fraction of a second” before the “wake word” and continues until the request has been processed, according to Amazon. So fragments of intimate conversations may be captured.

A few days after my wife and I discussed babies, my Kindle showed an advertisement for Seventh Generation diapers. We had not mooched for baby products on Amazon or Google. Maybe we had left digital tracks somewhere else? Even so, it felt creepy. Quizzed, the little black obelisk in the corner shrugged off any connection. “Hmm, I’m afraid I can’t answer that.”

With dozens of daily interactions recorded in the app’s history it grows to quite an archive, giving the dates and times I asked Alexa, for instance, to play John Lennon, or add garlic to the grocery list, or check on the weather in Baja California, where I was planning a vacation. Banal footnotes to life, mostly, but potentially lucrative intelligence for a retail behemoth dubbed the “everything store”.

In the app settings you can delete specific voice interactions, or the whole lot. But doing so, the settings warn, “may degrade your Alexa experience”. It is unclear if deleting audio purges all related data from the company’s servers.

This was on a lengthy list of questions I had for the people who designed the Echo and run its servers. Amazon initially seemed open to granting the interviews, then scaled it down to one interview with a departmental vice-president in October. October came and went and Amazon’s press representative went silent, killing the interview without explanation.

Which, to paraphrase Alexa, was not very nice to do.

You may read the full article on The Guardian newspaper site here.

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