Amazon Listens to Random Echo Owners’ Alexa Commands

storage and use of voice data raises privacy concerns

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Amazon employees sometimes listen to voice commands that Echo owners give to Alexa, Bloomberg reported. During the Alexa voice review process, a team of Amazon contractors and full-time employees listen to recordings of customers giving instructions to Alexa, for the purposes of improving software algorithms. Do privacy issues have a home on “The Internet of Things?”

Amazon Echo Privacy Concerns

Smart tech devices like biometric scanners and personal AI programs like Siri and Alexa mark a development known as “The Internet of Things,” or an increasing trend of smart and/or network-connected tech devices meant to improve our day-to-day lives. For example, some cars can learn which of their owners are operating them and adjust the driver’s pre-programmed seat placement and air conditioning settings before the driver gets into the car. Google Nest offers a line of thermostats that can warm or cool your home remotely via smartphone, and adjust itself to your schedule. These innovations have many people asking what the real cost is of these devices in terms of privacy and whether privacy is a thing of the past.

Privacy Issues – How Smart Is Smart Tech?

“The Nest thermostat is able to learn as it goes with the objective of helping you reduce the costs of heating and cooling in your home,” said Professor Paul Rosenzweig, J.D., Professorial Lecturer in Law at the George Washington University Law School. “That also means Nest comes to know something about you and your family. Nest will learn that when you leave the house at 7:30 in the morning on a weekday, it should not normally expect you back until 6 o’clock that night, but it will also know that when you leave the house at 7:30 in the morning on Saturday, you’ll be back in just an hour or so.”

If Nest knows it, Google knows it, too. The concern is that if a third party obtains information about when you’ll be out of the house, it increases the possibility of a burglary. Of course, Google and Nest are merely one example of many, as is shown by Bloomberg‘s article.

The Three Big Privacy Questions for Technology

Looking at the bigger picture of data collection, according to Professor Rosenzweig, offers several clear areas of concern. “One: Who owns or controls the data?” he asked. “Two: What are their responsibilities with respect to collecting that data? And three: What might they be permitted to do with it?”

Statues or contracts almost always provide ownership of the data to the collector, answering the first question immediately. Skipping ahead to the third question, user data is a good that can be bought or sold on the private market for the benefit of the buyer and seller after it’s been collected. This can shape billion-dollar industries as our records are collected and analyzed. Unfortunately, the second privacy question—regarding accountability—is far less consumer-friendly. But why? The answer is economical, and an analogy of the American railroad helps explain it.

“Even if you make a railroad liable for fires caused in a farmer’s haystacks that the rail line passes if the rail operator’s profits are great enough, and the cost of spark arrestors are too high, the railroad will just pay for the privilege of continuing to cause fires,” Professor Rosenzweig said. “Its agents will negotiate with the farmer and make up his losses.”

This scenario may sound fine, but these negotiations cost time and money, which the railroad has an abundance of as compared to the farmer. Even if all the farmers along the railroad track have a great enough combined wealth as to outweigh the railroad’s, it’s very difficult for all the farmers to get together and coordinate a response or to collectively sue the railroad. “Think back to the Nest thermostat,” Professor Rosenzweig said. “It is probably more costly for thousands of users to protect their data and privacy than it is for Nest to build better protections into its thermostat.”

For now, in terms of data privacy, the risk continues. Whether Google, Amazon, Apple, or any other smart tech company mishandles our data, they may simply continue to “pay for the privilege,” as Professor Rosenzweig put it. With luck, as “The Internet of Things” continues to develop, we can vote for legislators who pass laws that increase the minimum standards of data handling and protection to which companies must adhere.

Paul Rosenzweig, J.D., contributed to this article. Mr. Rosenzweig is a Professorial Lecturer in Law at The George Washington University Law School

Professor Paul Rosenzweig contributed to this article. Professor Rosenzweig is a Professorial Lecturer in Law at The George Washington University Law School. He earned his J.D. from the University of Chicago Law School and then served as a law clerk to the Honorable R. Lanier Anderson III of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.