Just in time for Christmas, Amazon has announced its very own voice-controlled system that functions as a smart virtual assistant and music player.
Amazon is expected to offer Echo to consumers for a couple hundred bucks, but only to those who had already signed up on the waiting list. As of today, Echo is only available by invitation and there were no early models handed out to tech journalists for actual review. Nevertheless, Corliss Home Security got hold of the supposed functions and features of the device.
Echo is a sleek cylindrical gadget with 7 microphones, built-in speakers and capability to connect to the web. It's pegged as a very smart home gadget that can sync and control all the various smart devices in your household through issuing voice commands.
It's a really cool way to connect various gadgets of your futuristic house. For instance, you can tell Echo you're going out so as soon as you step out, the lights will automatically turn off and the doors will lock. Also, if you really need help to remember when you ran out of milk and eggs, Echo can also record reminders like chores and shopping lists (that you can just as easily do with a post-it) and then read it back to you at the right time. You can even instruct Echo to download/upload files using the cloud, and play your favorite playlist while it's going at it.
For all the geeky functions and cool factor, they conveniently forgot to describe how you will be certain that your info and privacy is protected while using it. You'd think paying a couple hundred would be enough price for living in the future, but as it turns out, there's another more costly catch: your privacy.
According to the description Corliss Home Security got, Echo's microphones are not always connected to the web; it only turns the mic on once you say the wake word “Amazon" or "Alexa". Basically, they are only supposed to make connections to the Internet once the wake-up and command words are said. Even then, users are told not to worry as there are safety protocols to protect them, or so they say.
With the expected trove of data Amazon will gather from this, it only takes a program to piece together all those information about you -- and you didn't even realize what you've given away. For instance, asking what's the weather like in Paris, Echo can remember that and assume that you're planning to go there on said date.
Tech companies will of course downplay the security risks and claim that they can be totally trusted. "All data securely salted and hashed in our private server located in the Bahamas or something."
The booming tech industry is herding consumers to fixate on the 'good' side of these innovations and ignore the tradeoff for those supposed convenience and 'free services'. You're surrounded by all this cool high-tech gadgets, sure. But you're also exposing yourself to the dangers of being listened and watched to at any given time. Just think of this: that smartphone has a GPS that surely comes handy when you want to find a nice restaurant nearby but it also means it's easy to track you down any time. And that tablet you're using to chat/Skype with? Yeah, it can be spied on.
"We've dramatically increased the access to our personal lives. Before, you had to break into someone's house to see what they're doing," said Andrew Sudbury, from the consumer privacy industry.
And as if the privacy concern is not bad enough, it clearly says on the Echo website: "Always getting smarter. The more you use Echo, the more it adapts to your speech, patterns, vocabulary, and personal preferences." Yikes. The convenience is nice and all but I don't think I want a machine with a learning capability anywhere near me.
Seems like our only safeguard is to turn them off -- if they can truly be turned off, that is.