US Senators Jeff Flake and Chris Coons question Amazon about consumer privacy, after an incident last month when a woman from Portland told KIRO-TV that her Amazon Echo device had sent a recording of a private conversation to a random person in her contact list. Amazon later confirmed the allegation and stated that the company “determined this was an extremely rare occurrence.” Senators Jeff Flake and Chris Coons contacted Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos via a letter demanding responses to public concern regarding privacy risks.
Is Echo digitally eavesdropping?
KIRO-TV reported that an Amazon Echo device recorded a couple’s private conversation and sent it to someone on a user’s contact list without permission. Danielle, a woman from Portland, Oregon, said that she received a call from a contact, who asked the couple to unplug all their devices after receiving an audio recording of their private conversation in his Seattle home. Danielle called Amazon customer service and received immediate confirmation regarding the claim. “This is something we need to fix,” was the customer service response.
Media also received confirmation of the report from Amazon, who later stated that it “determined this was an extremely rare occurrence.” Amazon spokeswoman Shelby Lichliter sent KIRO-TV the following account: “Echo woke up due to a word in background conversation sounding like ‘Alexa.’ Then, the subsequent conversation was heard as a “send message” request. At which point, Alexa said out loud ‘To whom?’ At which point, the background conversation was interpreted as a name in the customer’s contact list. Alexa then asked out loud, ‘[contact name], right?’ Alexa then interpreted background conversation as ‘right.’ As unlikely as this string of events is, we are evaluating options to make this case even less likely.”
Senators voice their concern
US Senators Jeff Flake and Chris Coon have sent a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos wanting to know what the company is doing to assure data protection for their users. Both Jeff Flake and Chris Coon are members of the Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law, of which Flake is chairman. According to Wired, Flake stated that Congress needs to be ahead of the curve and make sure that user privacy is protected, as corporations are installing new procedures and protocols. The letter requests reports about the number of negative reviews Amazon has collected from users about the Echo device poorly interpreting a request. It also urges for “prompt and meaningful action” in order to avoid similar incidents from happening in the future.
“This incident makes it clear we don’t fully understand the privacy risks we’re taking,” Coons added. The letter is said to consist of roughly 30 questions regarding facts about the frequency at which the device delivers voice data to Amazon’s servers, the period of data storage and confidentiality. It also asks Amazon to grant access to information about the length of the recording the device makes after hearing the word “Alexa,” and customers’ endowment to delete the recordings. The Senators voiced their concern following a data privacy scandal in which Cambridge Analytica, an American company, managed to obtain the data of over 87 million Facebook users in order to understand their psychology and influence their vote. Although there are voices that claim psychological mapping is overestimated when it comes to influencing voting, it is becoming increasingly clear that big companies like Facebook played an important role in major social events. The senators’ concerns seem well-founded, after recognizing the fact that data may be manipulated for political purposes.
The Cambridge Analytica scandal highlights some interesting facts, namely that companies or groups of individuals can influence major political events with minimal costs anywhere in the world, using global tools, apps, and platforms. This may very well mean that the digital era might accelerate the decentralization of power: big companies not necessarily associated with a government may collect infinite chunks of data on their customers and later use them for political purposes. This, in turn, raises questions about the companies’ ethical standards, political ramifications, and customer protection. As Amazon is facing questions about consumer privacy after the incident, it becomes clear that policymakers are trying to keep pace with technological advances in order to provide greater consumer protection and transparency regarding data usage and storage.