An Alexa Holdout Wants to Know Who’s Listening

One of my kids has asked for a Google Home Mini. But hold up, Santa.

It’s been three years since Amazon debuted Echo, a speaker that came with a talking digital assistant named Alexa, which you can ask to order a pizza or play a song or a great many other things. Since then, such smart speakers have proliferated, with 24 million expected to sell worldwide this year.

Amazon said last month it was bringing Alexa to the workplace, where it can help set up conference calls or track appointments. Google has priced its Home Mini under $30 for the holiday season. And Apple is coming out with its own competitor, the HomePod, next year.

But I’m not sure I’m ready. I just bought an Atari and a record player, so I’ve been reverting to the technology of my youth. But more important, there are some secrets I don’t want within earshot of an open microphone. I put on a Barbra Streisand album the other day. It’s not something that I’m proud of, but these are complicated times and it happened. How do I explain that to Alexa?

Of course, we’ve been trading off privacy for the wonder and convenience of technology for years. How comfortable we are with gradually ceding more data to the machines is probably inversely correlated with how many times we’ve watched “The Terminator.” And I’ve watched it. A lot.

Still, the kid wants it, and I’ll probably fold, eventually. But I’d like to know what I’d be getting into. So let’s start with the fine print.

Amazon’s terms of use explain that “Alexa streams audio to the cloud,” but not all the time — only “when you interact.” Then “Amazon processes and retains your Alexa Interactions, such as your voice inputs, music playlists, and your Alexa to-do and shopping lists.”

Generally, I’m a man of few “voice inputs,” but I’m not sure I want any of them sent to Amazon’s servers. Amazon says that you can delete your records, although it cautions that “deleting voice recordings may degrade your Alexa experience” because Alexa learns by getting to know your voice inputs.

Over at Google, “conversation history with Google Home and the Google Assistant is saved until you choose to delete it,” the company says, adding that “Google Home records what you say” during interactions and sends that recording to Google’s servers “in order to fulfill your request.” The recordings can be deleted at any time, the company says.

Those safeguards all sound reassuring. But last month, some Google Home Mini units were found to be recording conversations all the time, not just when users were interacting with it. And over the summer, a hacker showed that an Echo could effectively be turned into a wiretap, though that required physical contact with the device itself. A Bluetooth flaw was also found to be putting both devices at risk of remote hacking. The companies have said they have addressed these problems.

Still, in some cases, the devices can be triggered by mistake. Amazon also says that “information may be stored on servers outside the country in which you live.” And then there’s the Amazon Echo Look, the cloud-connected fashion assistant that has the added component of shared images.

In a statement, Amazon said, “We’ve built multiple layers of privacy protections into Echo including a mute button that electronically disconnects the microphones, clear visual indicators when voice recordings are being captured and streamed, as well as the ability for customers to see and delete voice recording history for their devices.”

In its own statement, Google said that “all the devices that come with the Google Assistant built in are designed with privacy in mind.” It added that “Google only stores voice-based queries”after it is manually activated or recognizes “the hotwords ‘O.K. Google’ or ‘Hey Google.’”

I asked Joel Wallenstrom, the chief executive of Wickr, a messaging company focused on security, what he thought of the rise of digital assistants. He doesn’t have one, though he pointed out that we already have this kind of technology “by virtue of Siri.”

“There are a lot of ways to have privacy and security, it just requires an awful lot of human oversight and management, and that typically doesn’t happen,” he said. With a digital assistant, he added, “you’d have to constantly be on your toes about updates and changes to their privacy policy.”

I already spend a lot of time interacting with talking computers. When I recently moved from London to New Jersey, my new American phone synced with my old British one, including Google Maps. I now spend weekends being bossed around by the voice of an unyielding British woman who seems incredibly confident about the back roads of suburban New Jersey. We get along great. But she’s not recording my rants about traffic and sending them to the cloud.

At least I can take comfort that I’m not the only one who wonders about these things. In the past three years, the Better Business Bureau told me it had received 9,876 complaints about Amazon.com. Seventy-nine were related to the Echo speaker, which features Alexa, and just a single one of those complaints mentioned privacy concerns.

The lone dissenter was identified by the bureau as “Dennis W” in Massachusetts, who told them he bought an Echo because he thought it “would be good for an information source (news, weather, sports)” but “upon further research I found that this device is an unwanted privacy concern where Amazon collects and sells info.”

When he tried to return his Echo, Amazon tried to allay his fears. “I do not believe them,” he said.

So there you go, I’m not the only one worried. There’s the one other guy.

Content originally published on https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/08/business/echo-alexa-amazon.html by DANNY HAKIM