“Alexa, When's My Next Class? This University Is Giving Out Amazon Echo Dots”
Elizabeth Weise, USA Today, June 20, 2018
Not to mention the problem of Alexa “simply overhearing” otherwise private information spoken aloud by anyone within microphone range …
Starting this fall, some students at Northeastern University in Boston will be given the option of getting an Echo Dot smart speaker linked to their university accounts. They'll be able to ask Amazon's Alexa what time their classes are, how much money's left on their food card and even how much they own the bursar's office.
The program gives students instant access to information they would have to call or go online for, as well as taking pressure off the school's offices. It also makes Amazon's digital assistant a go-to source for a generation who will inhabit a world in which talking to computers is commonplace and who will soon have paychecks to spend.
At the same time, it raises questions about security and privacy for young adults living in close quarters, often on their own for the first time. …
Alexa can't differentiate between different people's voices, so a prying roommate could be an issue, said Paul Bischoff, a privacy advocate with Comparitech.com, a security and privacy review site.
“There's also the problem of third parties simply overhearing otherwise private information spoken aloud by Alexa,” he said.
Amazon is now claiming that the mishap reported here, in which an Echo recorded a random chunk of household conversation and e-mailed it to a third party, resulted from a cascade of four misinterpretations of elements of the conversation: Echo misheard something as a wake word, something else as a "send message" request, something else again as the recipient's name, and yet another thing as a confirmation.
“Amazon Explains How Alexa Recorded a Private Conversation and Sent It to Another User”
Tom Warren, The Verge, May 24, 2018
Each Echo maintains a log of its operations, and one tech-savvy user decided to look through this log to find out how often the device wakes itself up “accidentally.” The answer turns out to be “several times a day, for no obvious reason.”
“Yes, Alexa Is Recording Mundane Details of Your Life, and It's Creepy as Hell”
Rachel Metz, MIT Technology Review, May 25, 2018
I started wondering: what is it picking up on at my house when we're not talking to it directly?
So I checked my Alexa history (you can do that through the “settings” portion of the Amazon Alexa smartphone app) to see what kinds of things it recorded without my knowledge.
That's when the hairs on the back of my neck started to stand up. …
It's heard me complain to my dad about something work-related, chide my toddler about eating dinner, and talk to my husband — the kinds of normal, everyday things you say at home when you think no one else is listening. …
I invited Alexa into our living room to make it easier to listen to Pandora and occasionally check the weather, not to keep a log of intimate family details or record my kid saying “Mommy, we going car” and forward it to Amazon's cloud storage.
My guess is that the sampling is not really accidental, but reflects Amazon's desire to collect additional data about its customers. I suppose that the primary goal is to improve the Echo's voice recognition by getting a large enough data set for the machine-learning techniques to work a little more reliably. On the other hand, Amazon has many other possible uses for such a collection. The fact that the Echo sometimes mishears something as its wake word provides a convenient cover story.
An Amazon Echo “accidentally” recorded a couple's private conversation in their home and e-mailed the recording to one of the husband's employees. Amazon investigated and found an explanation that supposedly satisfied the company engineers, but did not divulge that explanation either to the couple or to the general public, instead asserting that they had “determined this to be an extremely rare occurrence” and that “Amazon takes privacy very seriously.”
“Woman Says Her Amazon Device Recorded Private Conversation, Sent It Out to Random Contact”
Gary Horcher, KIRO-TV, May 24, 2018
What does “personal style” mean when the Echo Look gives you fashion advice, and can tell you what you like but not why you like it?
“Style Is an Algorithm”
Kyle Chayka, Racked, April 17, 2018
If you know the source of the suggestion, then you might give it a chance and see if it meshes with your tastes. In contrast, we know the machine doesn't care about us, nor does it have a cultivated taste of its own; it only wants us to engage with something it calculates we might like. This is boring. …
We can decide to become a little more analog. I imagine a future in which our clothes, music, film, art, books come with stickers like organic farmstand produce: Algorithm Free. …
“Echo” is a good name for Amazon's device because it creates an algorithmic feedback loop in which nothing original emerges.
Alexa, how do I look?
You look derivative, Kyle.