I've been having a conversation lately with a former colleague about voice control of physical devices. As I mentioned yesterday, I purchased an Amazon Echo and just love the way it's transformed my kitchen. My family is playing music, setting timers, checking the weather and adding fun and interesting things to the shopping list.
I'm struggling a bit because I want to be able to control another device in my house using the Echo. My former colleague works for the company that makes that other device and I've been trying to understand their plans for either integration with the Echo or direct voice recognition in their device.
I initially thought that I wanted the Echo to control everything, but then I realized that I will probably only have an Echo in my kitchen and I have other products all throughout the house that I want to be able to talk to (thermostats, streaming music players, lights, locks and so on). While I really don't want different voice control systems to learn the syntax for, I realize that there's likely not going to be a way to have a single source of control unless I do put an Echo in every room. At $199 each, that would be a challenge.
Anyway, during these conversations with my former colleague, it became clear that there are privacy some concerns about the Echo. In my mind, the Echo is sitting there idly listening for its command word, and only then does it wake up and listen to what else you've said. It's possible that the Echo is listening to everything we say, but is that really something that's important to Amazon?
The amount of data being processed and uploaded to Amazon would be staggering. Now, they could be listening for key phrases, keywords as it were, and sending them up, but again, that could be a seriously large amount of data as well.
I think of bigger concern is that someone could hack the Echo and then start listening to everything we say. The government would be a good candidate for that as would anyone in the industrial espionage area, but is this really something we need to actually worry about? I think the answer to that is both no and yes.
No, I don't think Amazon is listening to everything we say. Well, that's not correct, the Echo IS listening to everything we say, but it's not 'using' any of it until after it hears someone say 'Alexa.' However, I really don't have any concrete proof of that – it's only what I figured out myself as I thought about how the Echo works. I don't think we need to worry about this as I trust Amazon to do the right thing. However, I should probably assume nothing and actually find out what they do so that I can be better prepared.
Yes, I think we should worry about this. Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean someone's not out to get you. We already have voice control in Google Now and Siri and my 8-year old automobile has a voice control module although the car is not Internet connected. However, we are about to start putting voice control devices all throughout the house and eventually everywhere else.
I've read a few books about the NSA and what Edward Snowden did, so I'd be surprised if the Government didn't start listening to that stuff as well (looking for keywords of course, then digging deeper). Again, I'm not paranoid, but I do believe in having reasonable expectations. If the NSA is really looking at all of our Facebook and Twitter posts, and listening to our phone calls, then how much of a stretch is it to imagine them hacking into our houses and listening through these voice-control devices?