What do you think of Amazon's Alexa and others similar?

ai
internet-of-things
digital-wellbeing
personal-data

#1

Hey, I would like to know your opinion about devices such as Amazon’s Alexa, specifically about privacy issues and the effect they might have on our life beyond convenience (eg, increase consumerism, decrease human interaction).

Thanks!


#2

Hi danimora,

Honestly i have no usage of it, so i don’t want one (not even as a paperweight).

And of course, despite what they say i have massive issues regarding privacy with such devices. I don’t like that they send all voice commands to their cloud!
Hopefully it will be soon illegal in EU with the new GDPR law :blush: It will have to ask explicit consent of all people in the room to send the message to the cloud!

Notice there is no technical reason to have this always on listening device sending voice to the cloud, companies like snips are doing this on device without sending to servers.

And if you have doubt regarding the fact that you have no privacy, look at this article of ‘data workers’ that review the google voice commands:

A french article:


Google transalte quote:

It’s real data. Ah, you hear it, the guy, you hear him speak! That, you see, it’s limited [he laughs], it’s a bit scary. It’s anonymous, but you see the exact time, the street-level location on Google Maps, and then you hear the person. But at the same time, well, he clicked on “I accept the terms of use of Android”, that’s what. If he says on his phone: “Take me to rue d’Ulm”, and I must check that the phone has launched the query on the GPS, he has calculated the correct route, etc. , checks like that.

According to raters, some tasks can feel “creepy.” These are usually tasks related to personalization services, which require raters to first give Google access to their e-mail, chats, photos, and other Google services they use.

Also even Amazon sharehodlers thinks it’s not a good idea to have one in your bedroom


#3

I share these concerns on privacy. Having always-on cloud-connected microphones lurking around everywhere has a huge potential for abuse. Makes me nervous.

Along the same lines - and maybe even worse - are always-on camera’s that are being hidden in glasses, like the product recently introduced by Intel. See: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=16308522

Dystopian…


#4

The present state of all of the various assistants and smart speakers are a confluence of all the worst things you can do privacy-wise, in my opinion. Always on, always listening, plus all of them require you to positively opt-in to ALL of their companies’ various tracking features, including searches, web history, shopping history, permanent location history, and when/where/how you use every app on your Android or Apple phone. They don’t function otherwise.

Plus, even if you don’t care about all that, which would be crazy, they’re not even particularly useful as of yet. Even if you don’t mind giving up all that stuff, the value you get in return is extremely limited still, for yourself anyway. The value you provide Google, or whomever, in data is quite a lot, hence why Amazon and Google have been in a race to the bottom giving away alexa dots and google home minis for free with every other product they sell.

I saw a case recently the government subpoena’d Amazon to access their Alexa records to try to solve a murder. Amazon claimed that the always-on mic wouldn’t have stored anything except the wake words and everything said after that, but please. The capability is there if someone wants to switch it on later, and that’s enough for me to stay away, forever, regardless of my non-existent trust in Amazon to do the right thing today. When the Google minis first shipped, for a brief period they were recording all the time permanently to Google’s servers as a result of a software bug.


#5

Hey guys!

Thank you for your comments and articles. I’ve read some of them with a lot of interest. I previously didn’t know anything about the raters, and I liked the debate parents have around been or not able to take photos with their glasses. It’s interesting how many parents on that debate said that there was no need for those glasses since we never see many of our pictures or videos again anyway.

Likewise, even if it’s easier to buy things using Alexa, shouldn’t we question our need for such things in the first place? Just because something is easy or cheap to buy doesn’t mean that we need to buy it, right? I would like more people to think more about the environmental/social consequences of their consumerism and not only about the convenience of buying stuff.

It’s in some way related to the attention crisis with our phones. Just because we can easily read the news, check our mail, take photos, etc., on our phones, it doesn’t mean we have to check them constantly.

At the end, it’s all about questioning “what for?” and “what are the consequences?” right?


#6

The problem is that many people just don’t care and see it as a ‘cool new gadget’. With these kinds of devices I think strict governmental regulations are in order. But as you say, raising awareness is needed as well, so that people make informed choices… in this case we can still act early and not after the fact.

It is certainly related, and also in a class of its own. Imagine the society where everyone is wearing these glasses and carrying these listening devices… someone gets a heart attack, and it is filmed from 20 different angles, shared on social media, etc. Huge societal impact :frowning:


#7

Here’s a blog post I just published, suggesting a way for people to control and be paid directly for their data. Feedback is encouraged.


#8

I’m probably in the minority here, but while I share the major concerns about privacy, I think Amazon’s Echo devices are super useful and have the added benefit of allowing access to information services and other content without using screens.

We have six Echo devices around our home and they are in constant use to set timers, and check schedules and transit times, hail Ubers/Lyfts, play music, etc. – all without involving phones/screens. The drop-in (intercom) and Alexa calling features also allow screen-free and hands-free telephony, which is great.

As great as drop-in is both inside and outside the home, using it outside the home requires a smartphone with the Alexa app. Since I often use a flip phone, I recently rigged up an Echo Connect, spare Obi ATA, and a random Google Voice number to create a private “Bat Phone” that only immediate family members can use to call the Echoes from outside the home. Everyone in the family uses this multiple times a day. It’s come to replace texting a person when they’re known to be home, which liberates people to step away from their phones. It’s also much more convenient and has more endpoints than the home phone.

We also found that once music transitioned from recorded medium to MP3 players, to phones, often times someone would go into their phone to play some music and end up distracted by something else and never actually get the music going (or even if they did, still end up sucked into the phone).

Since getting our Echoes, there is much more music in our home and far fewer faces in phones.

Also, none of us have ever bought anything from Amazon through an Echo. So aside from buying the Echo devices themselves, there hasn’t been an uptick in consumerism.

Smartphones also listen (i.e. Hey Siri / OK Google) so I’m not really sure how material the difference is from a privacy perspective or why I should care. Though stated benefits notwithstanding, I’m open to the possibility that I should.


#9

Hi @James, thanks for that positive feedbacks on Echo :slight_smile: I don’t own one so it’s nice to see what it can bring.
For sure they must be great to be that successful, what annoys me is that the technology is there to do it in a Privacy By Design way, I don’t get why they don’t do it.


#10

This Hacker News discussion contains some interesting comments on Alexa’s listening modes, how it works, and how much storage it would require to store all discussion it overhears, etc.

https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=16341258


#11

Thank you for posting about your positive experiences with Alexa. I’ve largely heard negative or “bloopers” (children making large purchases, etc) around using it, and seeing another side of it is extremely helpful.

My general opinion around items such as Alexa is that of distrust. Even if policies prevent companies from using everything you say for advertising purposes, and even if you can turn off some listening features (which I don’t know the details around, as I do not own an Alexa or similar device), policies can change with new leadership on both company and government levels.


#12

I honestly don’t know much about them at all. But the idea of them just seems lazy and disconnected from living an actual life. I can’t think of any good that will come of it.


#13

But that’s the point and the danger as well. Presumably having an Alexa (or similar product) in your home would save you time (not having to climb behind your laptop, phone or tablet), which you can spend on doing real life activities. The ease-of-use is enormous, and I expect these technologies will really take flight.

Even when Alexa, Google Home, Siri, et al will not invade your privacy, listen in on your most personal conversations, there will be cheaper clones of this tech, where all bets are off.

And you don’t have control of it… even if not using the technology, your family and friends will use them. It may be a toy doll [edited] in the corner of the room that listens in, or your own car (it was recently discovered that some new car models already collected personal data on your driving style and location, without car owners knowing about it).

Also governments might demand to have backdoors, or be able to hack these devices. In The Netherlands, for instance, there will be a law that allows government agents to hack anyone / any device in a neighborhood… if a suspicious person is living there (I am not familiar with the intrinsics of this law and how it will be applied in practice, but it imho it is a cannon to shoot at a mouse. It is also nicknamed as The Dragnet law (de Sleepwet)).
If you have a well-oiled, proper functioning democracy this might not be too much of a problem, but many countries just don’t have that…


#14

Apart from privacy concerns, I rather see those “assistants” as a killer for human relationships. These assistant raise the belief that an assistant is always on ready to serve. I envision a dangerous development for kids in such an assisted-environment.
The next point I see is a danger of knowledge downgrade for the human species. When an assistant exactly does what you request, you have no opportunity anymore of getting side views of your world. With a simple example being music… the assistant dictates your past and actual tastes… but it will never envision neither support a complete change…


#15

“And you don’t have control of it… even if not using the technology, your family and friends will use them. It may be a Barbie doll in the corner of the room that listens in, or your own car (it was recently discovered that some new car models already collected personal data on your driving style and location, without car owners knowing about it).”

Mmhh I think is dangerous to make statements like this, in which one person seems to know what the future will bring. I think is better to be humble on this matters, especially in a platform whose primary purpose is to challenge that apparently unavoidable fate.

Campaigns against Mattel’s kid-focused AI device worked, while there are many campaigns against their “Hello Barbie”, which because of privacy issues was not a commercial success.

The future you describe is not unavoidable. We do have control of it as citizens, and we are not passive agents that just consume. Of course, there will always be passive consumers, but the more we introduce the idea that other future is possible, just like the people behind the Center for Humane Technologies are doing it, the more people will realize there is nothing written on stone.


#16

Yea, you are right, I’ll edit the post… make it more general. Thank you :+1:

Agree! This is the reason why we are here, right? :slight_smile:


#17

Thanks for offering another perspective on this debate. I find very interesting the pros you describe of using Echo devices. After reading your post, I even considered that it might not be such a bad idea to have one. But then I went back to my usual argument against this “convenient” technologies: do we really need another technology to keep us from looking at our screens or we should just be more aware and have more will to stay focused on what matters to us?

I’ve always been skeptical of fixing the damage of a human-made “disease” (eg obesity) with another human-made technology instead of focusing on the primary cause of the problem: our social/economic system.

So, I think I’ll first try to increase my awareness and control over my screen time before buying a technology that as any medicine will for certain cause secondary effects.


#18

Mmhh you made me think.

I see what you are saying, but then I wonder: if we are not going to reach each other anymore, especially children to adults, as sources of information and assistance, then maybe this will bring us closer because we will still look for each other as sources of affection, don’t you think?

Regarding the second paragraph, I also see what you are saying. It makes me think of Japan, where I lived 3 years. Everything there is very convenient and thus comfortable (though there are no robots everywhere as people might think). I’ve heard that Japanese who leave Japan find very difficult to adapt to less comfortable countries, which is why in general Japanese don’t leave their home country and they are very reluctant to change. If technology makes our life amazingly convenient and comfortable, why would anyone want to change that?

Yet, Japanese are not very happy people, so convenience is not everything in life for human beings. We need more, and the need for adventure is part of the human spirit, so maybe this comfortable, convenient experience will give rise to a new type of explorer.


#19

I found this to be a very enlightening and fitting post on the topic:


#20

Hehehe the article is fantastic. Thanks for sharing it.

It made me think that maybe in the long term these devices won’t succeed. Why? Because we all have secrets!

Secrets that come from our impossibility to conform with the ideals of perfect behavior that all societies dictate. Perfect parental behavior, marital conduct, sexual behavior, hygienic behavior, male/woman behavior, etc. Societies tell us all the time how we should behave and every time, in private, we brake the rules… because we are human.

My theory is that people will get tired of being policed. Who wants to be shamed on Twitter for not being the perfect citizen, whatever Twitter decides perfection is? (Like what is happening with the #metoo movement, in which the feminist police is silencing people who have a moderate view. As these people decide to stop participating in the debate, others will unplug their houses, I think).

If we keep our spying devices on with the risk of being judged and shamed for our very humane behavior, I believe we will risk ending up being the robots ourselves: models of the perfect behavior, slaves of whoever decides what acceptable behavior is, paradoxically less free than what we wanted to be when we bought these devices.

But this is just my theory.