Protecting your privacy: What you need to know about Amazon Echo Alexa and other devices

“Alexa, play Trolls!”

With that simple command, Jacqueline Manning, 8, orders her Amazon Echo to play the sound track from her favorite movie.

The Manning family loves the hands-free, voice-controlled computer device so much they purchased three Echo Dots, too. They use them to help their busy family stay organized. 

Collin Manning, a history teacher and father of three, relies on it to keep grocery lists and schedules.

"I’ll schedule Eleanor's snack for Tue, February 28 at 8 am, okay?” Alexa, the voice of Echo replies to his command.

“Thank you!" answered Collin Manning.

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He told News 5's sister station 2 Works for You that the device is everybody’s personal radio and alarm clock, news source and radio station. His older daughter frequently orders it to play her favorite Taylor Swift songs. In fact, they use it so much, one of his 22-month old son Truman’s first words was “Alexa.”

The Amazon device, and others like it, are capable of playing trivia with you, telling jokes, managing your home’s heating and air conditioners as well as the lights and alarm system. However, computer experts warn that convenience comes with a price.

"We are trading a good degree of privacy for the easy button in our homes," John Hale, Ph.D. said. The computer science professor at the University of Tulsa warns the Echo is always listening.

"After you say the trigger word, the name of the device, then that information is recorded and transmitted elsewhere into the cloud," Hale added.

Everything you say after the word “Alexa,” activates Amazon’s servers to record. The system also tracks your likes, dislikes and buying habits since consumers can set her up to order for you online. Hale says it is a treasure trove of consumer data.

Something else to keep in mind, Alexa can't tell the difference between voices yet.

When a San Diego television station, CW6, recently ran a story about a little girl who told Alexa to buy her a dollhouse and cookies, something unexpected happened. One of the news anchors responded to the story by saying how cute it was that the little girl said, “Alexa, buy me a dollhouse." That awakened Echo devices in homes where people were watching that newscast. The ones that were set up for online shopping, inadvertently ordered dollhouses. Amazon did not reveal how many were purchased after the story aired.

"She [Alexa] didn’t recognize that as something that should not happen,” said Allison Maskus, University of Tulsa computer science Ph.D. candidate. “So, she ordered a whole bunch of doll houses that people did not actually want."

Like many families, the Manning’s like the convenience of the device so much, they put the Echo in their kitchen and three more Echo Dots in their children’s bedrooms and their master bedroom. Professor Hale warned these are private places consumers may want to keep private because of the recording system as well as the danger of hackers looking for opportunities to invade computer systems.

"Hackers are clever,” Hale said. “It's not all that unlikely to think that a malicious type of mod to one of these devices could capture and record everything that you are saying in your house and transmit it who knows where."

The professor says the best way to manage that convenience is to understand the privacy policy. Be aware that these devices are essentially always “on” and make sure you realize that when you decide what room to place them in.

Hearing this, and after reading the company’s privacy policy, the Manning family plans to carefully balance this new convenience with their privacy.

 

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