Amazon Echo and Google Home: Paving the way for privacy infringement?

The line between convenience and privacy is blurry
Are always-on devices privacy aware?
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The next step in smart home 'smartness' involves vocally speaking commands to the likes of Amazon Echo and the upcoming Google Home. These action cues should be familiar in the day and age of Siri and Google already in phones and smartwatches.

There's one thing, that has been somewhat pushed aside in all of this - privacy.

When the Amazon Echo was first released, there was certainly some attention paid to privacy, and for good reason. The Echo is basically a smart speaker that connects your voice to your digital life and listens to everything you do, and has been so successful that it has spurred the creation of devices like the Amazon Dot, which is a stripped down version of the Echo, and Google Home, Google's version of a smart speaker which was just announced at its I/O event.

Essential read: What's next in voice, gesture and haptics

While these always-on microphones may make things a little more convenient, that doesn't mean that they are privacy aware. How often are they listening? And what does it mean for your privacy?

When are they listening?

At their core, devices like the Echo are built to serve up information and perform tasks when you need them to be performed - all without having to leave whatever you're doing at the time. You can ask for simple pieces of information, but you can also ask to book a ride from Uber, schedule an event in your calendar, and so on.

In the case of the Echo, however, every single request that you make is uploaded to Amazon's servers, where it's analyzed. The Echo uses a 'wake word' to know when you're talking to it. But how does it hear that 'wake word'? Amazon says that the Echo starts listening a 'fraction of a second' before you use the wake word, and continues listening until a command is finished. What that means is that fragments of your conversations with others, for example, could be listened to and analyzed if the Echo thinks it has heard the wake word but hasn't.

Of course, in Alexa's settings you can delete certain interactions, or you can delete all of your interactions with the device, however Amazon warns that this could "degrade your Alexa experience."

Google Home has similar features and is likely to do the same thing. The Google voice activated speaker will let you ask Google about anything from facts, to the weather. Much like Google Now, it'll learn about habits to deliver more personal responses over time - and you can have conversations with it. Specifically, Home will be able to connect your queries with previous ones - something Alex can't do. Home's ability to do this may mean it's listening even more closely too.

Sure, Home has a mute button as well, but let's be real, how often are you going to use that? The point of Home is to ask information when you need it, and wandering over to press a mute button somewhat diminishes that purpose.

What does all this mean for privacy?

Following the Edward Snowden leaks, it seems like a tall order to ask people to put a web-connected, always-on microphone in their home. Still, it's happening.

Google and Amazon are great companies, but they're businesses - there's a reason they're trying to get inside your home, and to figure out that reason we have to look at the companies themselves. For Amazon this is easy - it's an e-commerce site, and the goal of Echo is to make it easier to purchase items on its platform. You can make shopping lists and buy certain items by asking Alexa.

Google is largely an advertising company, and it's likely looking for a way to spam ads in the smart home era. With the rise of the smart home, there's less and less of a reason for people to look at a screen - which is primarily where Google advertises to them.

It's unclear what form future advertising will take, but it's possible that it will be much more subtle - Home might only work with specific services that pay Google, for example.

Read this: What comes after the smartphone?

The ultimate fear is that it will simply listen to you conduct your day to day life, creating a database of which products you use, what you might need and when you might need it. That, however, seems a little too creepy, even for Google. What's more likely is that it will track only what you say directly to the device, even if like the Echo, it picks up fragments of conversation by accident.

Of course, the screen isn't dead quite yet. Google Home comes at a time when we may be transitioning away from the smartphone, but it's still a while before the smartphone truly dies. The data collected by Google Home could end up being useful for potential forms of advertising. Basically, there's still something in it for Google, even if Home isn't used to advertise to you and only gathering information to from you.

The future is unclear

The unfortunate reality is that the general public is going to continue to bow down to the god of convenience, whether their privacy is unknowingly being infringed upon or not.

It's difficult to imagine an Echo or Home-type device that doesn't infringe on privacy in some way. If you're an Android user, or a Google Chrome user, Google already knows a ton about you. The same is true with Amazon since it's able to track all of your shopping habits. Your search and shopping habits already pop up in ads on various websites meaning all that data is openly shared already making it somewhat the new norm of how companies make money.

Read next: Amazon Echo tips and tricks

That doesn't mean, however, that there shouldn't be a line. There could be serious consequences, at least for those who care about their privacy. It might become impossible to enjoy the latest tech at a comfortable level of privacy.

Smart home devices could learn every intimate detail about your life, using that information not just to advertise to you itself, but to sell to advertising firms. So where is the line between convenience and privacy? We're likely to soon find out.


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