Six Colors
Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Dan Moren

By Request: It’s listening

Amazon Echo
Amazon Echo

Subscriber Brett writes:

Dan, as a user of the Amazon Echo, how do you deal with having something in your house that “records” everything you say all the time? Doesn’t that bother you?”

This comes up a lot when I talk about the Echo; it seems to be one of people’s primary concerns with the device. And it should be: the recent battle over encryption and privacy has put a spotlight on the information that all of our devices have on us. People have a reasonable expectation that the conversations and things they say in their homes will remain private.

That said, this isn’t a concern unique to Amazon: if you have an iPhone 6s (or a plugged-in iPhone or iPad running iOS 9), those devices are listening to you as well—that’s how the “Hey Siri” feature works.

What I think this actually comes down to is that people who ask this question generally trust Apple and are skeptical of Amazon. Again, that’s not surprising: rigjht now, Apple is literally making a federal case out of the privacy of your information. The company states on its Siri knowledge base document that “Information about your voice isn’t tracked or stored outside of your iOS device and that you can remove this information by turning off ‘Hey Siri.’” (That said, the words you say need to eventually be sent somewhere in order to turn into the resulting query.)

Amazon, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to have any statement quite as clear and forthright as Apple’s. The Echo and Alexa are governed by a slew of documents, including the Echo’s Device Terms of Use, the Alexa Terms of Service, and Amazon’s blanket Privacy Policy. You can delete your voice recordings from the device though, as with turning off Siri, it may degrade the experience. In general, though, the only time your voice seems to actively be recorded is when you trigger it by saying “Alexa” and issue a query; the blue ring on the top of the device lights up to let you know it’s listening. (If you respond to that assertion with “Well, that’s what they tell you” then you have entered the realm of conspiracy theory and nothing I say is going to convince you.)

As to how I personally feel about it: No, it doesn’t bother me. Yes, I value my privacy, and no I wouldn’t want all my personal conversations to be recorded and stored. But I don’t believe that the Echo is doing that any more than I believe that my iPhone is, and until I see evidence to the contrary showing that Amazon is using my voice recordings for shady purposes, I’m content with this situation.

Voice-based computing is just getting started, and until we all have computing hardware in our houses with enough power to do the kind of processing now done by Amazon and Apple’s servers, this is the state of the art. So it remains, as always, a question of trade-offs. Right now, the Echo is a piece of technology that makes my life easier, and I don’t see any concrete indications that I’m severely compromising my privacy or security with its use. (Other people may decide they’re not comfortable with the perceived trade-off, and that’s their decision.) Should the situation change, I’d reevaluate it according to the facts available.

[Dan Moren is the East Coast Bureau Chief of Six Colors. You can find him on Twitter at @dmoren or reach him by email at dan@sixcolors.com. The latest novel in his Galactic Cold War series of sci-fi space adventures, The Nova Incident, is available now.]


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