To use Alexa, you must trust Amazon

During Wednesday's hardware event, Amazon wanted to make sure you knew it appreciated your privacy. "We invest in privacy across the board," Dave Limp, hardware and service manager told the crowd. “Privacy cannot be a side issue when it comes to the devices and services that we offer our customers. It must be fundamental and built in from the start for every piece of hardware, software and service that we make. "


To prove the point, the company has introduced a new set of privacy features that give users a little more control. A new camera shutter will electronically disconnect the camera on the Echo Show 5. With a separate function you can & # 39; privacy zones & # 39; in which a certain part of the image of the camera cannot be recorded or viewed live. Another setting, which will be released in November, ensures that the Ring camera does not record while you are at home. With a large number of new Alexa skills you can immediately follow recordings and even set rolling erasure. It's a series of features designed to convince you that Amazon is thinking hard about the privacy implications of its smart speakers and cameras.

But not everyone was convinced. At the same event, Amazon also gave us a flood of new ways to install network microphones in almost everything we own: our glasses, our alarm clocks, even our jewelry. It was an all-embracing urge for more Alexa in more places – a worrying thought if you worry about the invasive nature of microphones that are always on.

After months of increasing concern about it police partnerships with the Amazon subsidiary, proponents of privacy were not shy to point out the contradiction. "This is what Amazon does," said Evan Greer, a deputy director at Fight for the Future. "They make empty statements to sell their products and then continue to build a profit motive for drag surveillance without supervision and accountability."

At first glance, it might just seem like a bad timing. Amazon has been working on these products for a long time – and the launch comes after months of escalating privacy scandals around the idea of ​​a speech-based personal assistant. Each big provider is forced to consider the use of contractors – real people who listen to your speech assistant messages for verification purposes – and no one has had good answers to privacy issues.

Apple has even been forced to change its entire data retention model and has switched to a standard Siri recording opt-out – something that Amazon does not want to offer. It was clear that this was not the best time to start a huge expansion of your speech assistant program.

But the problem goes much deeper than bad timing. Speech assistants (especially hardware-agnostic such as Alexa) offer customers a basic deal: accept the privacy costs of placing a microphone in your home, and you have a range of speech-driven skills, all powered by an almost invisible network of cloud servers. This deal is known for anyone who has spent time with Facebook or Google products. You don't buy Alexa with money. It is almost always included for free with products that have other good purposes, such as speakers and screens. This can make the considerations more subtle than with a Facebook login or Gmail account, but the underlying transaction is the same: data for convenience.


Like any good seller, Amazon has focused more on the benefits than on the costs, which means that recent revelations have come as a surprise. On a technical level, it is not surprising that a voice assistant cannot be fully automated and that people may have to listen to improve the system. But Amazon and other companies were never clear about that part of the deal, so customers just didn't know.

Much of yesterday's privacy push seems to be about convincing users Amazon is aware of these new concerns and responds to them. If you get crazy about the idea that Alexa could hear a keyword and start recording, they give you a command that you can check. If you're worried about a growing catalog of voice recordings somewhere on an Amazon server, they'll give you a way to delete them. In the school of quick-and-break-things of technical ethics, this is how progress happens. You release a product, objections arise and you resolve the objections. It's a bit messy, but as long as you address customer concerns, you have to end up in a good place – or so it thinks.

But privacy is more than just a set of functions. If you accept Alexa in your house (or in your glasses), you have to believe that Amazon somehow does not benefit from the data you provide. In short, you have to trust them. Every time Alexa expands to a new domain, more trust is required – and every time the service spoils it, that trust becomes harder to maintain. Viewed from that perspective, the new privacy measures may be too little, too late.