Is Alexa big brother?

By Justin Ware. Published at Apr 12, 2019, in Ctrl Alt Del

We’re used to Alexa listening when we ask questions, but it turns out Amazon is listening too.

Earlier today it was revealed that Amazon has assembled a global crack team to listen to a ‘random’ selection of user recordings. These workers then transcribe the audio, listening to as many as 1,000 audio clips in nine hour shifts.

Amazon has expanded its audio transcription army into several countries including the United States, Costa Rica and Romania.

According to the company, Alexa only records audio after the ‘wake’ command is given. Any audio after this command is retained by the device and relayed back into Amazon’s servers to improve its grasp of human speech.

“By default, Echo devices are designed to detect only your chosen wake word,” a spokesperson said.

Users may opt out of Amazon using their recordings in the privacy sections of the Alexa app.

Amazon’s privacy statement includes the following:

“Customer trust is of the utmost important. We build Echo devices with privacy in mind from the beginning, striving to put the control in our customers’ hands. We recognise one single solution won’t be sufficient for every customer, and have built multiple layers of privacy protections into Echo devices.”

If it built Echo devices with privacy in mind from the beginning, why are users opted in to device recording automatically?

In addition, this isn’t the first time Amazon has come under fire when it comes to privacy. Just last year, an Amazon Echo user reported that the device had recorded a conversation without permission, before sending it to an Amazon employee in Seattle.

It’s stories like these that should give you pause when weighing up a smart home device purchase.

Fergus Hanson, who is the head of cyber policy at the Australian Security Policy Institute, believes smart home devices add an ‘extra layer’ of vulnerability to the household.

“Home assistants are basically adding an extra vulnerability to every home in Australia, they’re constantly listening.

“There have been examples where they’ve demonstrated that you can hack into an Amazon Echo. These have been reported to Amazon and fixed, but every piece of equipment has vulnerabilities and can be exploited,” he said.

Is a cool tech gimmick really worth your privacy (or what little is left of it)?

I’m not so sure.

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