Tags: Cyber Security | Emerging Threats | alexa | amazon | echo

Is Amazon's 'Alexa' Crossing a New Privacy Threshold?

Is Amazon's 'Alexa' Crossing a New Privacy Threshold?
LG Electronics’ vice president David VanderWaal and Amazon Echo vice president Mike George present the LG Smart InstaView Door-in-Door Refrigerator to CES 2017 attendees at the LG Electronics press conference on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2017, in Las Vegas, Nev. (Jack Dempsey/AP)

Wednesday, 26 July 2017 01:11 PM Current | Bio | Archive

According to a report on the tech news site The Information, Amazon.com is mulling the possibility of sharing the transcripts of Amazon Echo recordings with third-party app developers. And yes, that should scare you plenty if you own this device.

As it stands, Amazon.com has already launched an opt-in feature for the Echo that has serious privacy implications — but more on that later.

Unless you think Vladimir Putin will be staying at Mar-a-Lago anytime soon, it should be clear to you that Amazon.com needs to think long and hard about sharing customer data with third-party app developers.

The Echo currently records only when it hears its trigger word, "Alexa." Speaking to "CBS This Morning," an Amazon.com representative said that the company does not "share customer-identifiable information to third-party skills [apps] without the customer's consent."

As I’ve discussed elsewhere, it doesn’t matter if your data is anonymized. It can be re-identified fairly easily these days.

It’s time to pause for a thoughtful grown-up moment here. The Amazon Echo is always listening for that trigger word. What are the chances that Amazon.com doesn’t eventually expand what their devices record? That could be accomplished with a simple update that you may, or may not, review before downloading. What happens if Amazon goes ahead with the as-yet merely mulling-mode plan to share transcripts of Echo recordings with third-party app developers—or still other entities?

As with all these "advances," the real question comes down to how much you’re willing to sacrifice for the value added by the device. In the realm of cyber everything, convenience and privacy are uneasy bedfellows.

There are ways to delete these recordings from the device itself and from the cloud. The above CBS story presents a step-by-step guide, provided by Wired’s sentient editor-in-chief Nicholas Thompson, for doing that. However, when it comes to editing your data that has been harvested by Alexa there’s a hitch. "The problem with deleting all of it," Thompson explained in the article, "is that Alexa gets better as it listens to you. So, if you do that, it will suddenly go back to what it was when it came out of the box."

Given the implications and the associated privacy gamble here, an empty device may be your best bet.

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

There is plenty to worry about in a world where user agreements rival the federal tax code in length and complexity, and consumer use seems to equal consent, or it actually does amount to consent.

The latest Echo feature is proof of that concept.

As Gizomodo pointed out, Amazon pushed an update recently that included two potentially troubling features: Drop In and Alexa Calling and Messaging. The launch of these features represents Amazon’s first try at a social network.

Using the contacts stored in your phone, Amazon identifies everyone you know who owns an Echo and has also opted in, and allows you to see who they are. (They are not the only company to do this.)

This feature is great for messaging friends who are in the same network—that is, if you want to—and if you want all the contacts in your phone (including exes, former bosses, mere acquaintances and, well, you fill in the blank) to be able to message you. The device has a flashing yellow light to let you know when you have a message.

Amazon.com is quick to point out to critics that users have to opt-in, but the feature is designed like those tire rippers at the exits of pay parking lots: you can only easily go in one direction.

Once you’ve uploaded your contacts to Amazon.com’s cloud server using the app on your smartphone you have to get in touch with an actual human at Amazon to stop broadcasting your choice of IoT voice-controlled lifestyle console. There is no way to cherry-pick who can see that you’ve also got an Amazon Echo. You automatically become part of “the” network.

So what could go wrong? The Gizomodo reporter found a U.S. senator among the users in her Amazon Echo network. What if a zero-day exploit was discovered that allowed a hacker to use the Echo as an always-on microphone? They would be able to hone in on anyone — including, apparently, a federal official — so long as they had that person’s phone number.

As with all Internet of Things devices, we are in the Wild West days where anything goes, particularly when it comes to consumer privacy. In the race to roll out the hottest new whatever, companies don’t always think through the best designs for consumer privacy. The Amazon Echo network is a good example of that tendency.

If you are disturbed by any of this, you are not without agency. The best way to get companies to make more privacy-friendly products and services is to not use those products and services unless you’re comfortable with the level of privacy they offer you and your family.

Adam K. Levin is a consumer advocate with more than 30 years of experience and is a nationally recognized expert on cybersecurity, privacy, identity theft, fraud, and personal finance. A former Director of the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs, Mr. Levin is Chairman and founder of CyberScout and co-founder of Credit.com. Adam Levin is the author of Amazon.com Best Seller "Swiped: How to Protect Yourself in a World Full of Scammers, Phishers, and Identity Thieves." He is the security and credit expert for ABCNews.com and writes a weekly column for The Huffington Post, Inc. Magazine, The Hill, and Newsmax. Mr. Levin is a go-to expert appearing on many national TV programs including "The Today Show," "Good Morning America," "MSNBC Live," "Fox and Friends," "NBC Nightly News," "ABC World News Tonight," "Cavuto Coast to Coast," "Bloomberg Surveillance," as well as radio nationally. Read more of his reports — Go Here Now.

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The best way to get companies to make more privacy-friendly products and services is to not use those products and services unless you’re comfortable with the level of privacy they offer.
alexa, amazon, echo
Wednesday, 26 July 2017 01:11 PM
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