A warning to listen up as ‘smart speakers’ listen in

CHICAGO — Amazon has sold more than 100 million Echo devices. The smart speakers are now fixtures in homes across the country, making it more convenient to play music, order groceries and receive news and weather information.

“I honestly cannot imagine not having one now,” Echo enthusiast Lauren Radziminski said. “I use her that much.”

But in the Wilmette kitchen of Jenny Mitchell, you won’t find any smart speakers. She and her husband were uncomfortable with the idea that the Echo’s microphone was always listening.

“A few times we were just having a conversation, and the device woke up — and chimed in on the conversation,” Mitchell said. “It either misunderstood what we said, or thought we were talking to the device, so clearly it was listening and must have woken up, and it kind of spooked us a little bit.”

Situations like that are causing some consumers to question internet privacy and safety in the age of all-encompassing smart devices — leading to the big question: Is “big tech” bugging our homes?

“I feel like they have the ability to,” said Derek Huyser, a member of the Digital Privacy Alliance, a group that advocates for online safety. “I mean, all of our smart phones and internet-connected devices generally have a microphone in them, and those microphones can be activated to record things that we’re saying, whether we are conscious of that or not.”

In a written statement to WGN News, Jodi Seth, an Amazon spokesperson said: “Amazon takes customer security seriously. We have developed technical measures, and we have full teams, dedicated to ensuring the safety and security of our products. All voice recordings streamed to the cloud are encrypted in transit and securely stored on our servers. To allow you to review your voice recordings, we retain the recordings until you chose to delete them.”

But in the absence of national legislation, some Illinois lawmakers say the state must step in. Illinois state Sen. Cristina Castro has authored a bill pending in the state House known as the "Keep Internet Devices Safe” — or KIDS — Act. It would require tech companies like Amazon to tell consumers they are being recorded and what is being done with the information.

“What my bill does is it pretty much makes it a requirement that tech companies say, ‘Hey, you can collect that information, but you need to ask for permission to turn on the microphone.’ You also need to delineate in your terms and conditions exactly what you’re planning to use that information for,” Castro said.

Amazon said it keeps the data to improve interaction with customers. “Alexa uses your voice recordings and other information, including from third-party services, to answer your questions, fulfill your requests and improve your experience and our services,” Seth said.

LINKS

Notice: you are using an outdated browser. Microsoft does not recommend using IE as your default browser. Some features on this website, like video and images, might not work properly. For the best experience, please upgrade your browser.