Ever since the introduction of smart-speaker systems, concerned folks have voiced their apprehensions. Specifically, the ability to record a person in their home without their knowledge contrasts sharply with privacy laws. Additionally, the whole matter reeks of the surveillance state.
We’re not just talking about an Alex Jones-style conspiracy theory. Last year, Representative Ro Khanna blasted Amazon and its Echo smart speaker. In an angry tweet, Khanna – who is a Democrat – appealed to America’s historical legacy against oppressive practices. He stated:
It is outrageous that the Amazon Echo is recording every conversation in a person’s home and transmitting it to the cloud. This is exactly why we need an internet bill of rights! Didn’t we fight a revolution to prevent exactly this kind of surveillance?
Making matters worse, Amazon isn’t shy about their capabilities of their devices. Known as “always-on” devices, the Echo and similar products have the ability to record consumers’ conversations. However, the company claims a few safeguards.
First, the end-user must activate the device with a “wake word.” This denotes consent. Second, Amazon automatically deletes any recordings captured during “passive mode.” Finally, the company only stores a very small sample of consumer recordings.
This, they claim, is to provide a better end-user experience. Since humans talk differently, the recordings enable Amazon’s Alexa AI-based digital assistant to learn multiple nuances. As a result, Politifact.com labeled the idea of an Amazon surveillance state as “mostly false.”
But is that really the final word?
Surveillance State Sold to a Home Near You!
Politifact made this assessment last spring. But almost one year later, Engadget wrote an alarming piece suggesting that Amazon employees may be listening to your conversations. Contributor Mariella Moon wrote:
A Bloomberg report has detailed how Amazon employs thousands of full-timers and contractors from around the world to review audio clips from Echo devices. Apparently, these workers transcribe and annotate recordings, which they then feed back into the software to make Alexa smarter than before. The process helps beef up the voice AI’s understanding of human speech, especially for non-English-speaking countries or for places with distinctive regional colloquialisms.
Again, Amazon insists that allegations of a surveillance state are overblown. According to their PR team, the e-commerce firm has strong safeguards against abuse. Furthermore, they impose a zero-tolerance policy for any caught using the recording capability outside of protocol.
Fair enough. But that doesn’t make the initial fear of mass surveillance go away. Indeed, it only heightens concerns. Amazon admitted that it has the ability to listen to private conversations without consent. We’re only trusting their word that they won’t abuse this power.
I appreciate Amazon as a service and as an investment. However, if you’re taking their word regarding propriety, I’ve got a bridge I’d like to sell ya!