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LAS VEGAS — Alexa, are you spying on me?
Yet the popularity and capabilities of voice-enabled products such as the Echo continue to grow. At the CES gadget show in Las Vegas, which opened Thursday, Whirlpool, Samsung and other manufacturers are unveiling new ways to use voice services to control laundry machines, refrigerators and other home systems.
So what exactly is being collected, stored or shared ?
To work, the Echo is always listening. Once it hears someone utter a keyword, such as “Alexa,” it shares what it hears with Amazon’s servers to process a response. Those conversations are then stored indefinitely. Google’s Home speaker works in a similar fashion.
The Echo “has to listen to everything. That’s kind of disturbing,” said Ryan O’Leary, vice-president of WhiteHat Security’s threat research centre. “It doesn’t capture voice until it hears the keyword, but it could. You’re trusting the devices to not do that, but it’s entirely possible.”
In the Arkansas case, authorities investigating the death of a man found floating face-up in a hot tub at a friend’s home requested the contents of the home’s Echo and Amazon’s stored recordings in hopes they might contain evidence. The friend is charged with murder.
A judge has signed off on the search, but Amazon has balked. Amazon has declined to comment specifically on the case but said the company objects to “overbroad or otherwise inappropriate demands as a matter of course.”
“It’s not necessarily a direct threat for the average person, but the same thing can be said with any kind of privacy concern,” O’Leary said. “People say you shouldn’t be concerned if you’re not doing anything wrong, but that’s a dangerous precedent to set.”
Whirlpool is adding Alexa voice control to its smart-home appliances, including a washing machine, a stove and a refrigerator. Someone can instruct the oven to pre-heat to 400 degrees by speaking a command to an Alexa-enabled device, such as the Echo.
Simplehuman has a voice-activated trash can, and GE Lighting has a table lamp using Alexa voice control.
For now, voice control is mainly an add-on feature rather than a core component of gadgets. It’s there for those who want to use it, but it’s not essential for the product to function.
Nvidia’s Shield TV streaming device, for instance, employs Google’s Assistant service so viewers can control video playback or find out the weather with just a voice command.
“Connected microphones are starting to appear in everything from cars to children’s toys,” said James Plouffe, lead solutions architect at mobile-security company MobileIron. “Consumers should think carefully about how comfortable they are with the prospect of a live mic in common household items.”