Shhh, Your Washing Machine Might Overhear You

Alexa, are you spying on me? It’s a fair question in light of attempts by authorities investigating the slaying of an Arkansas man to obtain voice recordings collected by an Amazon Echo speaker and its Alexa digital assistant.

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 [seen here], Samsung and other manufacturers are unveiling new ways to use voice services to control laundry machines, refrigerators and other home systems.

Consumers are apparently willing to trade a certain amount of privacy for convenience.

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 center. “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.”

Some experts worry that allowing such a search would erode people’s privacy.

“It’s not necessarily a direct threat for the average person, but the same thing can…

Share