Last week we discussed the history of invasive technology that continually provides information to your metadata fingerprint.
We mean technology that tracks and records our actions or words in our private spaces. This technology is all over, and in everyone’s favorite devices.
Let's break down one of the greatest virtual assistants that has broken onto the scene in the last three years and discuss exactly why we might want to be more aware of the privacy and autonomy we are giving up.
Alexa and her amazingness
Amazon’s Echo, and the corresponding interface Alexa, is amazing. We use an assigned wake word, such as Alexa, Echo, or Amazon, and suddenly we have streaming music at our fingertips. Or we can purchase directly from Amazon. Families can host a trivia night. If we are really bored, we can even have Alexa tell us jokes or knock down our ego a little.
With all this amazingness and functionality, what is there to fear?
Alexa recording and Amazon having snap shots of everyone’s Alexa discourse should not be a shock. Although some are more familiar with the mechanics than others, there has been plenty of media coverage. Let’s do a quick breakdown of what Alexa records.
Alexa records everything, in 60 second loops. Alexa doesn’t transmit these recordings to Amazon, but the computer chip within Echo is always listening. How else is Alexa to know when a wake word occurs? At most the last 60 seconds is sitting on the Echo in your living room. So when a wake word is used, Alexa comes alive and begins sending the data to Amazon to retrieve whatever you are requesting.
However, transmissions include a few seconds before the wake word all the way through the request and are stored on Amazon’s servers. The purpose for storage is to help Alexa learn and respond, as people have different tones, patterns, accents, and speech idiosyncrasies. Alexa relies upon the recordings to tailor responses to the household in which the device is operating.
As you and Alexa get to know each other better, the system responds quicker and more accurately to your requests.
The key to what is transmitted and what is recorded over in the next 60 second loop is the use of Alexa’s designated wake word.
But how accurate is Alexa’s response to the wake word? It depends on the user’s speech patterns and annunciation. Amazon has designed Alexa to be highly responsive to the user, as people expect tech devices to respond immediately despite variances in humans. Which means words that only sound like wake words can cause transmission.
Based on a quick Google search, here are some words that sound like Alexa: extra, hella, Texas, perfection, and direction. As you can see, only one word is slang vernacular. The other four words you might say on a regular day. And the five words listed above are by no means every word Alexa mistakes for the wake word.
In essence, Amazon may have way more of your life on their servers than you realize.
In an effort of customer service, as well as the individuals who are reticent to giving up their privacy entirely, Amazon provides instructions on how to listen to and delete recording. These instructions come with fair warning you will be hindering Alexa’s ability to function and understand you. You are deleting Alexa’s brain of how you and your family members speak.
Connected apps and exposure
Recordings may seem a small price to pay given all that Alexa can do. Not only can Alexa stream music and tell jokes, the operating system is capable of syncing with Apps to further streamline your life. Want a pizza? Alexa can order for you, if the pizza is from Dominos. Need a ride? Order a vehicle from Uber via Alexa.
Alexa can control Philips Hue smart light bulbs, and it can learn your home patterns and control the climate. Alexa can even see who is at your front door.
As Alexa integrates into more homes, the number of apps designed to work with Alexa will also increase. Even as you read this, hackers are taking Alexa apart to do more.
Which brings up one serious point of concern. Each Echo has seven microphones and a computer chip, which connects to a server on a regular basis (depending on usage). In essence, Alexa is hackable. Anything connected to the internet is at risk of being manipulated and turned against the user. Anything.
Currently more than 8 million people have given Amazon both permission to their privacy and agency, and Amazon is pushing a step further into invasive technology. One month ago, Amazon launched Echo Show. The operating system has not changed, but there are some things to know before adding Echo Show to your household. Like Echo’s constant listening, Echo Show’s video feed is always on.
Not only can Alexa hear everything, she can see everything as well.
The video feed changes what it shows on the screen based on information from facial recognition. Also, you can’t turn it off. All day long there are advertisements and attention seeking things flashing across the screen. These ads are tailored to your specific shopping habits, and they driven by the metadata fingerprint aided by all IoT information streaming to Amazon.
Because of how Alexa learns, you disable the video or actions and you hinder Alexa’s ability to function.
The biggest privacy concern, aside from an always on video camera, is the ability to connect to other Echo Shows without a ring or message. You could be cooking a steak and up pops grandma on the screen. Or whatever else your imagination might envision.
The future of Virtual Assistants
In conclusion, virtual assistants are not going anywhere. With each step forward in technology there are more functions that make people’s lives easier, and frankly more fun. Consequently each person will need to decide how much privacy and agency they are willing to give up for ease and efficiency.