Well, that didn’t take long. The Amazon Echo has been on the market a few short years and already unnerving stories of the smart speaker’s failings are cropping up worldwide, including in Germany, where an Amazon customer took advantage of the new EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) that grants individuals access to their personal data.
What’s scary is that this man not only got the search data he requested, but he also received around 1,700 Alexa voice files that were recorded in a stranger’s home. The customer let Amazon in on this little slip-up, but they ignored the larger implications of this and simply deleted the files from their server.
It was easy to pinpoint which unlucky user had their data shared illegally using details including names and local weather forecasts. Not surprisingly, Amazon hadn’t bothered to tell the victim.
Is this incident an anomaly?
The short answer is no; this kind of privacy nightmare could happen anywhere because Amazon saves Alexa voice recording indefinitely in the cloud — purportedly so it can develop voice- and language-recognition systems. Amazon’s processes for ensuring privacy are far behind its money-making technology — which is the corporation’s priority.
From Echo to Echo Plus to a total smart home
Remember that classic 1950 short story by Ray Bradbury, The Veldt? In case your high school English teacher wasn’t a Sci-Fi fan, here’s the rundown: a family lives in a “smart” home that does all menial tasks for them — machines brush their teeth, tie their shoes, help them cook. The house includes a “nursery,” which is a fascinating virtual reality room that reproduces any landscape they imagine. The kids love the house; the parents, unsettled by their family’s dependence on it, decide to turn off the house and move to the country to be more self-sufficient. The children beg to visit the nursery one last time...and it’s strongly implied that the kids recreate an African safari in the room, lock their parents inside, and let the lions devour them. Yikes!
Okay, Bradbury probably wasn’t trying to warn us about Google Home or Amazon Alexa, but it’s not hard to draw parallels between a cautionary tale about frightening consequences of tech dependence and 2018’s pervasive “smart” tech.
This Christmas morning, for example, Alexa crashed in Europe, leaving thousands of users without access to their new toy. Complaints and reports of the outage poured in, making it clear how much people already relied on the tech.
There are many reviews online of various smart products, but no one seems to be reviewing the overall idea of smart technology.
The Echo came out in 2014 as a smart speaker to let you control your music using just your voice. Updated iterations — such as the Echo Plus — have been consistently hitting the market. Alexa is Amazon's digital assistant; she’ll answer questions like: “What’s tomorrow’s weather” or “Who starred in Home Alone?” or “What’s a good recipe for chicken curry?” And those queries — as well as your private conversations — may be recorded and stored and sold to advertisers who’ll know more about your tastes than you do.
You get what you pay for
Digital speakers are a dime a dozen these days. Think about the trade-offs you’re making for the availability and the low price. Starting at about $40, you can get the Echo with Alexa. Ask yourself why this amazing technology is so startlingly cheap. Is it even possible for privacy to be built in, for your security to be part of the package?
We know, we know: having Alexa around is fun, and she’s cool enough to impress your friends. But it’s worth thinking about all these technologies we invite into our homes and whether the convenience outweighs the insecurity.