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Alexa privacy brought into question as Echo suffers meltdown

Businessman spying by listening through wall with glass

Amazon has continually denied its Echo devices are constantly listening and recording conversations in the home, but after one family had an entire conversation sent as an audio file to a friend, questions are being asked.

According to Kiro7 News, the unnamed family were discussing hardwood floors while the device was recording the entire conversation. Fortunately for the family the conversation was not of a sensitive native and it was also sent to a colleague of the husband, not a complete stranger.

“I felt invaded,” the customer, only known as Danielle, said. “A total privacy invasion. Immediately I said, ‘I’m never plugging that device in again, because I can’t trust it.'”

The family from Portland in the US had fully embraced the idea of the smart home. Echo devices had been connected throughout the home and to numerous smart appliances, though now the house is back to basics with all devices unplugged. Amazon has investigated the intrusion, but has not been able to pinpoint a cause of the ‘malfunction’ or explicitly confirm there are no similar examples.

Amazon has so far refused to refund Danielle for the ‘malfunction’ and invasion, but has instead offered to de-provision the devices so the family can continue to use the smart home features. This compromise will come as little comfort to the family, as Amazon has broken the bond of trust which is needed for companies to operate in this delicate era of data privacy and protection.

While this is of course a concerning development for any Echo owner, when you tie its work with US government surveillance activities it becomes even more so. Amazon’s reputation for being one of the worlds’ most customer centric organizations is starting to come under a bit of pressure, with its work with the various police departments as a good example.

Back in January, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Northern California chapter revealed the several police departments deployed AWS’ Rekognition software to search for people in footage drawn from the city’s video surveillance cameras. Empowering police forces and intelligence agencies is one thing, but a line has to be drawn somewhere when it comes to privacy. We wonder whether aiding the Big Brother ambitions of the government is on the right side of that line.

The tech giants have generally been pretty good when it comes to protecting user privacy, just look at Microsoft’s battle with the US government over data stored in European data centres, but there have been some worrying examples in recent months. With Facebook hitting the headlines for the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Google employees revolting over the decision to aid the operation of missile strikes and AWS assisting with such acts of unjustified privacy invasion, you have to wonder whether these tech giants have lost track of their principles.

We’re not suggesting the recorded conversation and Amazon’s work with various police departments are connected, but these are two examples of the promise to the consumer becoming a bit more jaded and battered. The digital economy is built on consumers personal information and a bond of trust with the technology companies. The agreement of trust is that these organizations will act responsible and ethically, but there are more examples appearing which prove to be quite the opposite.

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