• Chris Bowler

Amazon's worst nightmare

Prosecutors in murder trial want Echo recordings

Engadget reports today:


Prosecutors are once again hoping that smart speaker data could be the key to securing a murder conviction. A New Hampshire judge has ordered Amazon to provide recordings from an Echo speaker between January 27th, 2017 and January 29th, 2017 (plus info identifying paired smartphones) to aid in investigating a double homicide case. The court decided there was probable cause to believe the speaker might have captured audio of the murders and their aftermath.

Amazon introduced its Echo devices in November 2014, and since then, the connected speakers have become one of the fastest growing technologies today. According to the Consumer Technology Association, 44% of U.S. adults say they plan to purchase the device. Of course, Echo devices and their competitive cousins (Google and Apple) have penetrated almost 19 million U.S. wi-fi households according to Comscore.


While the appetite for voice assisted tech doesn't seem to be slowing down, the concept that these devices are secretly recording a user's conversations is a real concern. Back in May, Amazon was forced to release a statement explaining how a woman in Portland, OR, identified only as Danielle, claimed that her Echo had recorded a conversation between herself and her husband and then shared it with one of the latter's employees in Seattle. Amazon explained that certain trigger words were used which caused this chain of events, but the company deemed it be a rare occurance.


Further, it is unlikely that any meaningful recordings would have been captured in the New Hampshire homocide case above. That's because Alexa doesn't record, or engage in conversation, unless the user speaks the 'hot word' (typically 'Alexa'), and then typically only for a few moments as the command or request is answered.


Still, there is cause for concern in at least two ways.


First, as these devices become more universal, and also more sophisticated, consumers will rightly demand more limits around privacy. There could be a real threat to Amazon should a competitor embrace privacy concerns completely - similar to how Mozilla has differentiated its Firefox browser around privacy and user data to fight Chrome.


Second, while the device manufacturer might not be the evil threat here, the ability for a hacker to record conversations may be the real vulnerability here. It's suggested that some rogue skills that a user might enable would allow the hacker to expose the device. Greater vigilance and policing is required by Amazon, but with some 50,000 skills already available worldwide, it's not inconceivable that a hacker could work around the restrictions.


These concerns have implications for brand marketers, in that it's recognized that voice-assisted devices could be the next wave of digital marketing (ala Search). If the device sales stall over privacy concerns, or even more, the skill deployment is shunned or restricted, it may have negative repercussions for brands.


Let's hope that the device manufacturers and the cottage industry quickly forming around them quickly move to address the overall privacy concerns.


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