Watch it, your "smart" washing machine might overhear your conversation
LAS VEGAS, Nev. — People might have a new question for their Amazon Echo. "Alexa, are you spying on me?"
It's fair to ask, after recent events. Authorities investigating the death of an Arkansas man have tried to get 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 show in Las Vegas, which opened Thursday, Whirlpool, Samsung and other manufacturers are unveiling new ways to use voice services. They control laundry machines, refrigerators and other home systems.
Voice-Activated Product "Always Listening"
Buyers are apparently willing to trade a certain amount of privacy for convenience. People usually want privacy because it means they are not being watched or having information about them used.
So what exactly is being collected, stored or shared by these smart 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 process a response. Those conversations are then stored indefinitely. Google's Home speaker works in a similar 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."
Stored Recordings Sought In Arkansas Case
In the Arkansas case, authorities are investigating the death of a man found in a hot tub at a friend's home. They requested 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 objected. Amazon has declined to comment specifically on the case but said the company objects to too broad or "otherwise inappropriate demands."
Some experts worry that allowing such a search would weaken people's privacy.
"It's not necessarily a direct threat for the average person, but the same thing can be said with any kind of privacy concern," O'Leary said. "People say you shouldn't be concerned if you're not doing anything wrong," but it's a dangerous standard to set, he said.
Meanwhile, more companies keep asking people to invite them into their homes.
Voice Services Used In Smart-Home Appliances
Whirlpool is adding Alexa voice control to its smart-home appliances, including a washing machine, a stove and a refrigerator. Someone can set the oven to 400 degrees by speaking to an Alexa-enabled device, such as the Echo.
Simplehuman has a voice-activated trash can, and GE Lighting has a table lamp using Alexa voice control.
For now, voice control is mostly an extra feature rather than a main part of appliances. It's there for those who want to use it, but it's not essential for the product to work.
Many manufacturers are opting to use 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 use their voice to add items to shopping lists. They also can order groceries online with it.
CES chief economist Shawn DuBravac said as many as 700 companies could announce Alexa-integrated products during the show. More than 1,500 such products already exist.
As smart homes become more common, DuBravac said, voice control could change the way we interact with technology in much the way the computer mouse did. That change was back in the 1980s.
A Live Microphone In Household Items
"Connected microphones are starting to appear in everything from cars to children's toys," said James Plouffe. He works at mobile-security company MobileIron. Buyers should think carefully about how comfortable they are with a live microphone in household items, he said.
Amazon says it uses information gathered by the Echo to improve its voice technology. So 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 smart TVs.
It appears tech companies are betting that people will get over their fears. A flood of new voice-controlled devices is headed to market.
Derrick Dicol is executive director of Comcast's Xfinity Home. The service uses voice controls in its home products. He noted that people had to get used to sharing their banking information online.
"This is less invasive than that," he said. "It's just a different thing people have to feel comfortable with."