Amazon Echo Story Illustrates Dangers of Putting Surveillance Devices in Your Home excited
-by C. Mitchell Shaw
Reprinted with permission from TheNewAmerican.com.
With the report that Amazon’s Echo recorded a family’s private conversation and sent the audio file to a person in the family’s contact list, privacy concerns about the Internet of Things (IoT) are in the news again. And while Amazon is downplaying this example, the reality is that Alexa — Echo’s voice assistant — like many other IoT platforms and features, is a very real threat to privacy.
Last week, a Portland, Oregon, family was having a private conversation in their Echo-equipped home. Among other things, they discussed hardwood flooring. Later, the man received a call from an employee of his who lives in Seattle, more than 170 miles away. The employee told him he had received a message with the audio of the conversation.
As KIRO 7 in Seattle reported, the couple initially did not believe him. The woman — who only went by Danielle in the interview to protect her privacy — said, “At first, my husband was, like, ‘no you didn't!’ And the (recipient of the message) said ‘You sat there talking about hardwood floors.’ And we said, ‘oh gosh, you really did hear us.’”
They unplugged all of the Echo devices in their home. They had one in every room — including the bedroom — controlling lights, heating and air conditioning, music, and their security system. As The New American reported previously, Alexa is set to come standard with many new homes. As IoT devices become more and more a part of people’s lives, society is closer and closer to crossing a line into the panopticon.
Concerns about privacy have come up several times over IoT devices. As this writer reported in August 2015, a teenager in Issaquah, Washington, became so concerned about her mother's new Amazon Echo and its ability to listen in on all conversations in the living room that she removed it and hid it from her mother. Her mother told the New York Post, "I guess there is a difference between deciding to share something and having something captured by something that you don't know when it's listening.” Now — almost two years later — that statement has been punctuated by proof positive.
As this writer wrote in that 2015 article:
So, was [the teenager’s] decision to hide the device and keep her mother from using it reasonable? While some may think she went too far, this writer is not sure she has gone far enough. The Echo is simply the most recent (though certainly not the most egregious) example of the myriad of ways the Internet is used to spy on ordinary people living ordinary lives. Back in February, The New American reported on the ability of smart TVs to do the same type of spying. In the case of the TVs, though, it is even worse, because many of them also have a built-in camera.