Will the In­ter­net lis­ten to pri­vate con­ver­sa­tions?


Like a lot of teenagers, Aanya Nigam re­flex­ively shares her where­abouts, ac­tiv­i­ties and thoughts on Twit­ter, In­sta­gram and other so­cial net­works with­out a qualm.

But Aanya’s care-free at­ti­tude dis­solved into para­noia a few months ago shortly af­ter her mother bought Ama­zon’s Echo, a dig­i­tal as­sis­tant that can be set up in a home or of­fice to lis­ten for var­i­ous re­quests, such as for a song, a sports score, the weather, or even a book to be read aloud.

Af­ter us­ing the In­ter­net-con­nected de­vice for two months, Aanya, 16, started to worry that the Echo was eavesdropping on con­ver­sa­tions in her Is­saquah, Washington, liv­ing room. So she un­plugged the de­vice and hid it in a place that her mother, An­jana Agar­wal, still hasn’t been able to find.

“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,” Agar­wal said of her daugh­ter’s mis­giv­ings.

The Echo, a US$180 cylin­dri­cal de­vice that be­gan gen­eral ship­ping in July af­ter months of public test­ing, is the latest ad­vance in voice- recog­ni­tion tech­nol­ogy that’s en­abling ma­chines to record snip­pets of con­ver­sa­tion that are an­a­lyzed and stored by com­pa­nies promis­ing to make their cus­tomers’ lives bet­ter.

Other in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar forms of voice-recog­ni­tion ser­vices in­clude Ap­ple’s Siri as­sis­tant on mo­bile de­vices, Mi­crosoft’s Cor­tana and the “OK Google” fea­ture for speak­ing to Google’s search en­gine. Spo­ken com­mands can also be used to find some­thing to watch on some TVs, and an up­com­ing Barbie doll will in­clude an In­ter­net-con­nected mi­cro­phone to hear what’s be­ing said.

These in­no­va­tions will con­front peo­ple with a choice pit­ting con­ve­nience against pri­vacy as they de­cide whether to open another dig­i­tal peep­hole into their lives for a grow­ing num­ber of de­vices equipped with In­ter­net-con­nected mi­cro­phones and cam­eras.

The phe­nom­e­non, dubbed the In­ter­net of Things, prom­ises to usher in an era of au­to­mated homes out­fit­ted with locks, lights, ther­mostats, en­ter­tain­ment sys­tems and ser­vants such as the Echo that re­spond to spo­ken words.

It’s also rais­ing the specter of In­ter­net- con­nected mi­cro­phones be­ing se­cretly used as a wire­tap, ei­ther by a com­pany pro­vid­ing a dig­i­tal ser­vice, gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials with court or­ders or in­trud­ers that seize con­trol of the equip­ment.

“We are on the tra­jec­tory of a fu­ture filled with voice-as­sisted apps and voice-as­sisted de­vices,” For­rester Re­search an­a­lyst Fate­meh Khat­i­bloo says. “This is go­ing to re­quire find­ing the fine bal­ance be­tween cre­at­ing a re­ally great user ex­pe­ri­ence and some­thing that’s creepy.”

Fears about In­ter­net Sur­veil­lance Height­ened

Fears about In­ter­net sur­veil­lance have height­ened dur­ing the past two years as for­mer Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency con­trac­tor Ed­ward Snow­den re­leased doc­u­ments re­veal­ing that the U.S. gov­ern­ment’s ter­ror­ist- fight­ing pro­grams have in­cluded min­ing per­sonal in­for­ma­tion col­lected by a va­ri­ety of tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies.

The Elec­tronic Pri­vacy In­for­ma­tion Cen­ter, a watchdog group, wants the Fed­eral Trade Com­mis­sion to set se­cu­rity stan­dards and strict lim­i­ta­tions on the stor­age and use of per­sonal in­for­ma­tion col­lected through In­ter­net- con­nected mi­cro­phones and cam­eras.

“We think it’s mis­lead­ing to only present the po­ten­tial con­ve­niences of this tech­nol­ogy with­out also pre­sent­ing the huge num­ber of pos­si­ble draw­backs,” said Ju­lia Horwitz, di­rec­tor of the cen­ter’s pri­vacy pro­ject.

The FTC be­lieves com­pa­nies selling In­ter­net-con­nected de­vices and apps should col­lect as lit­tle per­sonal data as pos­si­ble and quickly delete it once the in­for­ma­tion has served its pur­pose, said Kris­ten An­der­son, an at­tor­ney with the com­mis­sion’s di­vi­sion of pri­vacy and iden­tity pro­tec­tion.

Ama­zon.com says Echo users don’t need to worry about the de­vice eavesdropping on them. As a safe­guard, ac­cord­ing to Ama­zon, the de­vice’s mi­cro­phone is pro­grammed to come on only af­ter it’s ac­ti­vated with the press of a but­ton or the use of a cer­tain word, such as Alexa, the name of the soft­ware that pow­ers the Echo.

A blue light on the Echo also comes on when it’s record­ing and re­mains il­lu­mi­nated when it’s lis­ten­ing. Users can also se­lect a sound to alert them when the Echo is record­ing. Ama­zon also al­lows users to re­view the record­ings made by the Echo and delete any or all of them, although the Seat­tle com­pany warns the de­vice might not work as well with­out ac­cess to the au­dio history.

The Echo so far is get­ting mostly glow­ing re­views. It has re­ceived a five-star or four-star rat­ing from about 90 per­cent of the roughly 23,000 re­views posted on Ama­zon.com.

De­spite what Ama­zon says, Steven Combs has no­ticed the Echo’s blue light il­lu­mi­nate at times when it hasn’t been asked dur­ing the six months he has been us­ing a test ver­sion of the de­vice in his Colum­bus, In­di­ana, home. But he says he has never wor­ried about be­ing spied upon.

“Some­body would have to have a real in­ter­est in me, and I don’t think I am that in­ter­est­ing for some­one to come af­ter my data,” said Combs, the pres­i­dent of a com­mu­nity col­lege.

Michael Edel­man, 61, started to won­der about the Echo’s snoop­ing po­ten­tial within the first few weeks af­ter he set up the de­vice in his home in Hunt­ing­ton Woods, Michigan. He frets about the pos­si­bil­ity of gov­ern­ment agen­cies us­ing the Echo or sim­i­lar de­vices as a sur­veil­lance tool, though that con­cern hasn’t been enough to cause him to turn off the de­vice’s mi­cro­phone.

“Af­ter you have lived long enough, you re­al­ize peo­ple will be will­ing to bring spy­ing tech­nol­ogy into their own house if they think it will do some­thing great for them,” Edel­man said.


This file prod­uct im­age pro­vided by Ama­zon shows the Ama­zon Echo, the latest ad­vance in voice-recog­ni­tion tech­nol­ogy that’s en­abling ma­chines to record snip­pets of con­ver­sa­tion that are an­a­lyzed and stored by com­pa­nies promis­ing to make their cus­tomers’ lives bet­ter.

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