No more secrets at home, now Amazon's Alexa is spying on us



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Would you let a stranger listen to your house and keep the recordings? For most people, the answer is, "Are you crazy?"

However, this is essentially what Amazon has been doing for millions of people with its Alexa wizard in Echo speakers equipped with microphone. And you're not alone: ​​bothering our homes is the next frontier of Silicon Valley.

Many smartphone owners do not realize this, but Amazon keeps a copy of everything that Alexa records after hearing its name. Apple's Siri, and until recently the Google Assistant, by default, also keep recordings to help train their artificial intelligences.

So come with me on an unwanted walk down memory lane. I listened to my Alexa file for four years and found thousands of fragments of my life: requests for a spaghetti timer, jokes and random snippets of Downton Abbey. There were even sensitive conversations that somehow triggered Alexa's "word of awakening" to start recording, including my family discussing medication and a friend conducting a business.

CONSULT MORE INFORMATION:
* & # 39; You can not be very careful & # 39;
* Personal Spies: What is snooping on you and who are they giving away?
* & # 39; Disconnect your Alexa devices now & # 39;

Amazon keeps a copy of everything that Alexa records after hearing his name

ROBERT KITCHIN / STUFF

Amazon keeps a copy of everything that Alexa records after hearing his name

As much as we care about snooping apps on our computers and phones, our homes are where rubber actually picks up the road for privacy. It is easy to rationalize the worries thinking that a single smart speaker or device might not know enough to import. But throughout the house more and more connected, there is a blatant invasion of data, and there are few regulations, watchdogs or common sense practices to keep it under control.

Let's not repeat Facebook's mistakes in our smart homes. Any personal data collected can and will be used against us. An obvious place to start: Alexa, stop recording us.

WHO IS LISTENING?

"Eavesdropping" is a sensitive word for Amazon who has struggled with a lot of consumer confusion about when, how and even who is listening to us when using an Alexa device. But much of this problem is at your own risk.

Alexa keeps a record of what it hears every time an Echo speaker is activated. It's supposed to record just with a word "wake" – "Alexa!" – but anyone with one of these devices knows that they are dishonest. I counted dozens of times when mine taped without a legitimate prompt. (Amazon says it has improved the accuracy of "Alexa" as an activation word by 50% in the past year.)

What can you do to stop Alexa from recording? Amazon's response is directly outside the Facebook playbook: "Customers have control," he says – but the product design clearly does not meet our needs.

You can manually delete previous recordings if you know exactly where to look, and remember to keep coming back. You can not really stop Amazon from making these recordings, besides silencing the Echo microphone (defeating its main purpose) or disconnecting the damn thing.

Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post, but I review all technology with the same critical eye.

ELAINE THOMPSON / AP

"Eavesdropping" is a sensitive word for Amazon.

Amazon says it keeps our recordings to improve products, not to sell them. (This is also a Facebook line.) But at any moment, personal data is out there, they are at risk. Remember the family that had Alexa accidentally send a recording of a conversation to a random contact? We also saw judges issue warrants for the Alexa recordings.

Alexa's voice file made headlines more recently when Bloomberg discovered that Amazon employees were listening to recordings to train their artificial intelligence. Amazon has acknowledged that some of these employees also have access to location information for the devices that made the recordings.

Saving our voices is not just a phenomenon of the Amazon. Apple, which has much more privacy in other aspects of the smart home, also keeps copies of conversations with Siri. Apple says that voice data is assigned to a "random identifier and is not connected to individuals" – but just how anonymous can it be a recording of your voice? I do not understand why Apple does not give us the ability to say do not store our recordings.

The unexpected leader in this issue is Google. He also used to record all conversations with the Wizard, but last year quietly changed his standards so he would not record what he heard after the "Hey Google" warning. But if you're among the people who set up the Wizard previously, you'll probably need to re-adjust your settings to "pause" the recordings.

Apple's Siri, by default, also keeps recordings to help train its artificial intelligence.

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Apple's Siri, by default, also keeps recordings to help train its artificial intelligence.

I'm not the only one who thinks that recording recordings is very close to bugging. Last week, the privacy committee of the California Legislative Assembly promoted an Anti-Eavesdropping Act that would require smartphone manufacturers to get customers' consent before storing the recordings. The Illinois Senate recently passed a bill on the same subject. Nor are they too exaggerated: requiring permission to record someone in private is enshrined in many state laws.

"They are giving us false choices. We can have these devices and enjoy their functionality and how they improve our lives without compromising our privacy," said Rep. Jordan Cunningham, Republican, the sponsor of the bill. "Welcome to the era of vigilance capitalism."

NO SECRETS AT HOME

Inspired by what I found in my Alexa voice file, I wondered: what other activities in my smart home are recorded by technology companies?

I found enough personal data to make even the East German secret police blush.

When I'm ready for a midnight snack, Google knows. The My Nest thermostat, made by Google, informs your server data in 15-minute increments, not just about the mood of my home, but also whether someone is on the move (determined by a presence sensor used to trigger the heat) . You can delete your account, but otherwise Nest will save it indefinitely.

You can manually delete previous recordings if you know exactly where to look and remember to continue

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You can manually delete previous recordings if you know exactly where to look and remember to continue

Then there are lights, which can reveal at what time you go to bed and do almost anything else. All lights connected to Philips Hue are tracked every time they are switched on and off – data that the company keeps forever if you connect to the cloud service (which is required to operate them with Alexa or the Assistant).

Every type of device is now becoming a data collection device. My Chamberlain The MyQ garage opener allows the company to hold – again, indefinitely – a record each time my door opens or closes. By default, the My Sonos speakers track which albums, playlists, or stations I've played, and when I press play, pause, skip, or increase the volume. At least they only keep my story for six months.

And now the craziest part: after questioning these companies about data practices, I learned that they are also sharing what is happening in my home with Amazon. Our data is the entry price for devices that want to integrate with Alexa. Amazon is not just listening – it's monitoring everything that happens in your house.

Amazon acknowledges that it collects data about third-party devices, even when you do not use Alexa to operate them. He says Alexa needs to know the "state" of their devices "to make for a great smart home experience." But keeping a record of these data is more useful to them than to us. (A feature called "hunches" lets you know when a connected device is not in its usual state, such as a port that is not locked at bedtime, but never found it useful.) You can tell Amazon to delete everything Learned about your home, but you can not look at it or stop Amazon from continuing to collect it.

Google used to record all the conversations with the Wizard, but last year it quietly changed its defaults so it would not record what it heard after the "Hey Google" warning.

ROSS D FRANKLIN / AP

Google used to record all the conversations with the Wizard, but last year it quietly changed its defaults so it would not record what it heard after the "Hey Google" warning.

Google Assistant also collects data about the status of connected devices. But the company says it does not store the history of these devices, even though it does not seem to be stopping too much.

Apple does the most admirable job of operating home appliances, collecting as little data as possible. Your HomeKit software does not report to Apple any information about what is happening in your smart home. Instead, compatible devices speak directly, via encryption, to your iPhone, where the data remains.

I NEED DATA TO BE MORE INTELLIGENT

Why do technology companies want to keep information about our homes? Sometimes they do this just because there are few stops – and hopefully this will be useful in the future.

Ask companies why, and the answer usually involves AI.

"All saved data is used to improve Siri," Apple said.

"Alexa is always getting smarter, which is only possible by training her with voice recordings to better understand requests, provide more accurate responses and customize the customer experience," said Beatrice Geoffrin, privacy director at Alexa. The recordings also help Alexa learn different accents and understand consultations about recurring events such as the Olympics, she said.

Noah Goodman, a professor of computer science and psychology at Stanford University, told me that it is true that AI needs data to stay smarter.

"Technically, it's not unreasonable what they're saying," he said. Current natural language processing systems need to re-run their algorithms on old data to learn. Without easy access to data, your progress may decrease – unless computer scientists make their systems more efficient.

As much as we care about snooping apps on our computers and phones, our homes are where rubber truly reaches for privacy.

RICHARD DREW / AP

As much as we care about snooping apps on our computers and phones, our homes are where rubber truly reaches for privacy.

But then he takes the scientist's hat off. "As a human being, I agree with you. I do not have one of those speakers in my house," Goodman said.

We want to benefit from AI that can set a timer or save energy when we do not need lights on. But that does not mean that we are also opening our houses to tech companies as a lucrative source of data to train their algorithms, undermine our lives and perhaps miss out on the next big breach. This data must belong to us.

What we lack is a way of understanding the transformation that data and artificial intelligence are bringing to our homes.

imagine Downton AbbeyIn those days, rich families could have human helpers who used their intelligence to observe and learn their habits, and make their lives easier. Breakfast was always served exactly at the specified time. But the locals knew to be careful what they let the staff see and hear.

Fast forward to today. We have not reached an agreement that we are filling our homes with even more meddling digital assistants. Goodman said, "We do not think about Alexa or the Nest that way, but we should."

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