Amazon, just off its product introduction event high, is getting slammed by privacy advocates over one of its new devices. How Amazon has been using the reams of information it gathers from Alexa voice assistants has put the company in an unwanted spotlight.
The new Amazon product causing concern is wearable and Alexa-enabled. Users have hands-free access to Alexa and can make phone calls, set reminders, listen to podcasts and more.
Sounds innocent enough, but there are always valid privacy concerns about Alexa. We’ll tell you why people are worried and how Amazon is responding.
Alexa in the wild
During its product introduction event earlier this week, Amazon unveiled Echo Frames eyeglasses. The frames provide hands-free access to Alexa.
While wearing them, users can ask Alexa to make phone calls, set reminders and even control smart home devices. The frames have four micro speakers that use Amazon’s open-ear audio technology.
The technology directs sound toward your ears and minimizes what people around you can here. The frames are designed for everyday use as consumers can add prescription lenses.
Currently, the frames are only compatible with Android. You can also access Google Assistant by making a long press on the temple.
Unlike Google’s reviled smart glasses, Echo Frames has no camera or display. But people are worried that the ever-listening Alexa is now out in the wild and walking the streets of our cities.
Director of the privacy group Big Brother Watch in the U.K., Silkie Carlo, told Business Insider that Amazon has a “terrible record on privacy” and keeps releasing smart products that “constantly surveil their owners’ private lives.” Carlo added that it was one thing to have smart devices in a home but “encouraging people to wear listening devices all day is a step further.”
In an email to Komando.com, a spokesperson for Amazon said the frames are designed to activate Alexa with a wake word and its’ microphones only respond to the voice of the person wearing the frames. Also, the microphones can be turned off by double-clicking the action button.
When the microphones are on, there is a blue indicator light. It briefly turns red when the microphones are shut off. The frames will not detect the wake word until the mics are turned on again.
“Because Echo Frames are Alexa-enabled, they will always be getting better via over-the-air updates,” the spokesperson added.
During Amazon’s product event, the company announced that Alexa is getting two new voice commands the will provide users with more privacy controls. Amazon is adding, “Alexa, tell me what you just heard,” and “Alexa, why did you do that?”
Echo Frames privacy concerns
Privacy concerns over Echo Frames come from a valid place. This year we discovered that Alexa was always listening and many times recording conversations without customers’ knowledge.
That process became public when Amazon admitted that third-party contractors were hired to have humans listen to the conversations and transcribe them. Amazon claimed it was merely trying to improve Alexa’s machine learning.
Adding to concerns about Amazon’s commitment to privacy was news that Alexa was still storing some users’ information. In July, Amazon’s vice president of public policy, Brian Huseman, told Delaware Sen. Chris Coons that not all records of conversations with Alexa are deleted, even if you manually removed the audio.
For example, any transactions involving third-party skills developers are kept so the developers could track transactions. Essentially, every purchase you make through Alexa is kept on file. That information is likely to contain personal data.
Right now, Echo Frames can only be purchased by invitation, so don’t expect a horde of people to be wearing them just yet. We may not know right away if the Echo Frames are a real privacy risk, especially when Amazon tends to only fess up after it’s caught.