That 'smart' washing machine might be listening to every word you say
LAS VEGAS, Nev. — Is my Amazon Echo spying on me?
It's a fair question. Officials have tried to get voice recordings collected by an Amazon Echo speaker to help solve the case of the death of an Arkansas man.
The Echo listens and follows voice commands. Users call out to "Alexa" to start the device.
The popularity and abilities of voice-enabled products such as the Echo continue to grow. At the CES show in Las Vegas, which opened Thursday, Whirlpool, Samsung and other manufacturers are showing new ways to use voice services. They control laundry machines, refrigerators and other home systems.
Buyers seem willing to trade a certain amount of privacy for convenience. People usually want privacy. They don't want to be watched or have information about them made public.
Private Conversations Stored Away
So what is being collected, stored or shared by these devices?
To work, the Echo is always listening. Once it hears someone say a keyword, such as "Alexa," it shares what it hears with Amazon's servers to give a reply. Those conversations are then stored. Google's Home speaker works in nearly the same way.
The Echo "has to listen to everything. That's kind of disturbing," said Ryan O'Leary of WhiteHat Security. The company offers products to protect people and information. "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."
Privacy Concerns In Arkansas Case
In the Arkansas case, officials are looking into the death of a man found in a hot tub at a friend's home. They requested the home's Echo and Amazon's recordings in hopes they might help with the case. The friend is charged with murder.
A judge has allowed the search, but Amazon has objected. Amazon has declined to comment specifically on the case.
Some experts worry that allowing such a search would weaken people's privacy.
It might not be a risk for the average person, but the same thing can be said with any privacy concern, O'Leary said. "People say you shouldn't be concerned if you're not doing anything wrong," but it's a dangerous example to set, he said.
Your Voice Used To Operate Products At Home
Meanwhile, companies keep asking people to invite them into their homes.
Whirlpool is adding voice control to appliances including a washing machine, a stove and a refrigerator. Someone can set the oven temperature by speaking to an Alexa-enabled device, such as the Echo.
Simplehuman has a voice-control garbage can. GE Lighting has a table lamp using Alexa control.
For now, voice control is mostly an extra rather than a main part of appliances. It's there for those who want to use it, but it's not needed for the product to work.
Many manufacturers are using Amazon's Alexa service for now. Some are embracing voice systems from Google, Apple or Samsung, though.
Nvidia's Shield TV streaming device, for instance, uses Google's Assistant service. Viewers can control video playback or find out the weather with a voice command.
Samsung's new refrigerator lets people speak to add things to shopping lists. They also can order groceries online with it.
Information May "Live Forever"
CES leader Shawn DuBravac said as many as 700 companies could announce Alexa products during the show. There are more than 1,500 such products already.
Voice control could change greatly the way we act with technology, DuBravac said.
"Microphones are starting to appear in everything from cars to children's toys," said James Plouffe. He works at security company MobileIron. Buyers should think carefully about how comfortable they are with a microphone in everyday things, he said.
Amazon says it uses information gathered by the Echo to improve its voice technology. Then that information might "live forever" online, Plouffe said.
The concern first grabbed headlines a couple of years ago. Samsung said then that conversations could be captured by its voice-controlled TVs.
It appears tech companies are betting that people will get over their fears. Many new voice-controlled devices are headed to market.