Alexa: Must you eavesdrop?

By JACK RYAN ENTERPRISE JOURNAL,

The evidence continues to grow that technology companies, in their single-minded determination to develop better products, essentially are spying on their customers.

Facebook’s problems with respecting the privacy of its customers are well documented. But a column in The Washington Post makes it clear that the quest for user data involves plenty of devices that have become common in homes.

Or, as Post technology columnist Geoffrey A. Fowler wrote, “Bugging our homes is Silicon Valley’s next frontier.”

The Alexa smart speaker is a fine example. It’s certainly entertaining to have a high-tech butler in the home that can answer questions about recipes, weather forecasts and many other topics. It becomes far less cute, and frankly a bit sinister, when you realize that Miss Alexa is recording everything said in your home after you trigger the device to ask a question — and then sending the information to Amazon.com, the manufacturer.

Questioned about this, Amazon replied that customers have control of their Alexa. Except that it’s impossible to prevent the device from recording questions and sending data to the company. The Post story includes a video on the eight steps a user must take to delete the recordings Alexa has made.

Eight steps? C’mon, Amazon, technology is supposed to make life easier than that. A homeowner should be able to say, “Alexa: Please delete all the recordings that you’ve made,” and be done with it. The fact that an easy “delete key” is unavailable makes it obvious that Amazon doesn’t want you to remove the data.

There actually are a couple of good reasons for Alexa to record requests. Amazon can use them to acclimate the device to regional accents, for example. And it is true that artificial intelligence equipment like Alexa will only get better as programmers use real-world experiences to improve them.

Still — what in the world are Amazon and all the other high-tech companies thinking? They seem willing to be labeled as privacy violators, basically gambling that nobody will object.

It’s not just Amazon, by the way, although that company is one of the biggest offenders because the company requires any other device that operates through Alexa to share its information. So if Alexa activates your Sonos speakers, Amazon knows which songs you’re playing, and even which ones are at a higher volume.

Apple’s Siri device also makes recordings without allowing users to prevent it. The Google Assistant used to do it, but changed its default setting last year to avoid recording what it hears after activation.

Fowler looked into what other devices gather information and, as he put it, “found enough personal data to make even the East German secret police blush.”

Google’s Nest thermostat tells its servers every 15 minutes the temperature in the house, along with whether anyone’s moving around. Lighting systems and even a garage-door opener are keeping track of information, too.

The solution is simple: Make it super-easy for people to opt out of having data collected from their home. If technology companies don’t do this, government will do it for them.

In fact, most states already have laws that require permission to record people in private. California’s legislature is considering a bill to require manufacturers of smart speakers like Alexa to get consent from customers before storing recordings. The Illinois Senate already has passed a bill on the same issue.

Devices like Alexa are the future. But Amazon and its peers are wrong to amass private data from unwitting customers. More than anyone else, these companies ought to understand the damage that a computer hack can cause.

Jack Ryan, Enterprise-Journal

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