Amazon’s Echo Dot speaker was just rated as the highest sold product in the holiday season on Amazon.com by Techcrunch. For those of you who are unaware of this product category of smart speakers and smart devices at large, here is a quick explainer.
A short intro to this confounding technology
Smart Speakers like Google Home or Amazon’s Echo series are speakers which have a digital assistant baked in and are connected to the internet. They can interpret voice commands and perform tasks accordingly. They are connected to your respective Google/ Amazon accounts and can, therefore, use that information.
They can read your emails, play music, read the news, call or text someone, and in case of Amazon, order items from well, Amazon. What is even better is that these speakers can recognize different voices and tailor their responses accordingly.
These Ho…companies ain’t loyal
But here is where the problem lies, these companies already have a ton of data on you, including credit card information, addresses, mobile phone numbers etc. Adding on to that, now they have your voice too. Having a smart speaker is like having a constantly on microphone inside your house.
Now, Google or Amazon might say that these devices listen for only the keywords and then only start listening properly but earlier this year when Google’s Home Mini was released, it had a bug which made it record all the audio around it.
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Even though Google fixed this with an update, just think of the privacy ramifications. You could potentially have an eavesdropping device inside your own home, listening to every single one of your conversations, giving clear indications as to when you are leaving and arriving.
Putting aside the companies’ assurances on security, it has been quite apparent that almost anything can be hacked. I mean hackers were able to take control of a car on a highway. Detractors might say that the tech in the car was not up to the mark, but even a remote possibility is a worrisome one because of the rapid advancement of technology.
Insert legal jargon here
If you look at it from a legal aspect, in India, the company does not have the authority to share your Sensitive Personal Data and Information SPDI (unless agreed to by you under the Terms of Service) which includes
– Financial information, such as bank account or credit card or debit card or other payment instrument details;
– Physical, physiological and mental health condition;
– Sexual orientation;
– Medical records and history;
– Biometric information;
– Any detail relating to the above as provided to body corporate for providing service; and
– Any information received under the above by body corporate for processing, stored or processed under lawful contract or otherwise
This is all hunky dory but the law has not kept pace with the current technology and does not explicitly mention voice tech or smart tech. The language has to be interpreted and that is a problem. Because if you go through Alexa’s Terms of Service, it says
Amazon processes and retains your Alexa Interactions and related information in the cloud in order to respond to your requests (e.g., “Send a message to Mom”), to provide additional functionality (e.g., speech to text transcription and vice versa), and to improve our services. We also store your messages in the cloud so that they’re available on your Alexa App and select Alexa Enabled Products. You or other call participants may be able to ask Alexa to help with certain functions during a call, such as “Alexa, volume up” and “Alexa, hang up.” Certain Alexa Calling and Messaging services are provided by our third party service providers, and we may provide them with information, such as telephone numbers, to provide those services.
1. Your interactions are stored in the cloud and not offline on your own system. This means that it is on Amazon’s turf. I am not sure that this means that they have the authority to use the data for their purposes, but if past precedent is anything to go by, they simply use this for improving your user experience.
But still, the thought of such vital info being stored on off-site servers is scary.
2. They may provide third party service providers with your information. Even though it is just restricted to Telephone numbers as of now, big corporations have a habit of doing nefarious things for profits. And no proper definitions/ regulations only compound this problem.
So, what to do after reading all of this? Do you shut off all your devices and live like cavemen? Well, no.
Because you can’t run away from tech. And stopping its advance would be nothing but stupid. As with all technologies, a proper regulatory framework with little to no ambiguities has to be drawn up and enforced. Because you are playing with people’s lives here, nothing less.
Image creds: Google Images
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