Who Hears the Echoes?

The number of Amazon Echo units in circulation has now reached more than 5 million. Approximately half of the device users rely on the system to stream music, and about a third use it as an information source for everything from weather reports and sports scores to recipes and commute times. In addition, some tap the device for home automation.

Of course, Amazon also hopes to sell products—from paper towels to vitamins—through the Echo platform. With about 400 million items available through the Amazon marketplace, the task of ordering items is brainlessly simple and convenient.

Make no mistake, speech technology has advanced. We now have tools such as Amazon’s Alexa—as well as Siri, Cortana and Google Now—to guide us through tasks. In many cases, speech is better than clicks and keystrokes.

Yet, it’s important to question how all this data could be used in questionable, if not creepy, ways. These systems store audio snippets and data in the cloud. In fact, many users aren’t aware that the Echo listens to discussions continuously.

You would have to go to the Alexa app and manually delete data if you don’t want it there. Yet, that would pretty much defeat the purpose of the app, since it continuously learns and personalizes based on usage.

The question is: How much do we want Amazon and other companies to know about us? At what point is all this a potential invasion of privacy, especially for highly sensitive health and medical information and bedroom activities?

A breach or data leak could be detrimental to our career or put us at risk in other ways. What’s more, it’s now possible to learn all about a person based on behavioral patterns. If you’re not familiar with the now (in)famous Target case involving a pregnant teenage girl, check this out.

While Apple says that it ties information to a random identifier that isn’t associated with a user’s Apple ID, that isn’t the case with Amazon or Google. Yet, Google says it doesn’t pass information to its servers until a person utters “OK Google.”

Of course, law enforcement agencies are increasingly interested in the data. A recent suspected murder case in Arkansas resulted in officials viewing an Echo as a potential witness. It may have overheard discussions that took place prior to the death. Amazon declined to cooperate (despite a warrant), but we’re far from a clear legal position on the issue.

Businesses and consumers must think about these things. We’re entering an entirely new era, where the data points increasingly define our lives.