Can Home Assistants Compromise Your Privacy?

amazon-echo-privacy

By Tracey Dowdy

Last year, police in Bentonville, AR requested Amazon Echo voice recordings, transcripts and other information connected to the device as part of a murder investigation. That, of course, raises the question: “Are home assistants like the Echo and Google Home recording your private conversations?”

Relax. Privacy violations aside, the volume of data that would constantly be streaming would easily overwhelm Amazon and Google’s servers. Remember, the Echo begins recording when it hears “hot words.” Although it still “hears” you when other words are used, it isn’t capturing those conversations or uploading them to Amazon’s servers.

Of course, there’s always the possibility it could capture parts of a random conversation if it picks up a hot word. If you’re concerned about what your Echo may have recorded, you can easily check on your conversations using the Alexa smartphone app. The app lists all your recent voice requests and has playback capability so you can listen to individual recordings.

If you discover something you would like to delete, erasing it from your history is simple.

To listen to your history:

Launch the Alexa app on your phone

  • Go to Settings
  • Select History
  • Select the recording
  • Choose Play

If it’s something you don’t want stored, choose Delete. This action erases the recording stored in the Cloud as well as Home screen cards connected to the recording. If you only want to remove the Home screen card, select Remove Card from the Home screen.

If you don’t want any of your past voice commands stored, mass deletion is your best option.

  • Go to amazon.com/mycd which opens the Manage Your Content and Devices page
  • Select Your Devices
  • Select your Echo from the list of devices
  • Select Manage Voice Recordings
  • Select Delete

If you’re concerned about random conversations being recorded, the easiest way to avoid this is to turn off the microphone. Of course, that defeats half the purpose of having that immediate on-demand service you probably bought the Echo for in the first place.

As far as the warrant for the Echo data in the murder case, Amazon declined to turn over any of the information that had been streamed and stored to its servers, but it did give police the accused’s account details and purchase history. Police were able to pull some information off the speaker and by using this information, along with information taken from other tech devices like the water meter, they were able to piece together a timeline of activity for the night in question.

Similar to the request for Apple to unlock an iPhone in the San Bernardino case, it will be interesting to see how tech companies continue to draw the line between an individual’s right to privacy and the needs of law enforcement.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

 

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