Millions of homes across the globe have some version of Amazon’s Echo digital assistant. There’s a slew of options between which ones to choose, with more upgrades seemingly available every few months. Apart from the standard Echo, there’s the Echo Dot, Echo Plus, Echo Show, and Echo Spot, with Echo even been integrated into some types of high-tech refrigerators, microwaves, and other appliances. It seems like the lineup gets larger every year. The question is, has their flashy design and convenient use made us turn a blind eye to their true — potentially darker — capabilities?
We all know these devices are listening. Echo recognizes its name, whether you call it Alexa, Amazon, Echo, or Computer, as a “wake word.” Once it’s “awake,” it will answer any question you ask it. The problems start when you consider what else it may be retaining.
This is a question that has security and privacy experts concerned. Major companies like Amazon, Google, and Facebook thrive on the data they collect. Facebook is worth as much as it is because of its monetized user data, and a huge portion of Facebook’s business model involves selling its users’ data to other companies. It comes down to this: If an online service is free, you are the product.
With the Echo, once you speak the “wake word” (usually “Alexa”), everything you say is shared with Amazon. The company uses this data for several things. For one, it compiles user data to make Alexa’s responses better. But it also uses your data to target products to you that you’ll be more likely to buy, preferably through Amazon.
The effect is similar to using your browser to shop on Amazon or using an Amazon-branded credit card. Everything you do on their website and everything you buy with an Amazon card is tracked: the company builds a profile for you and your likes. The same can be said for Google and Facebook.
When it comes to the Echo, Amazon explicitly states they do not sell your data to third parties. The company says they only use this data internally; they say it’s secure — and so far, that’s technically true. But there have also been reports of “malfunctions.” If you do have a digital home assistant like the Echo or you use these kinds of services on your smartphone, you can set your privacy and security options pretty much however you want. But at the end of the day, though you do have some control over your privacy with a digital assistant, as long as one of them is in your home, that control — and your privacy — will never be at 100 percent.
Director of Communications