February 17, 2017
Both Amazon and Google are thinking about turning their respective home speakers — Echo and Google Home — into home telephones. Knowledgeable sources say the tech giants could introduce the feature this year, with the goal of gaining yet more control over consumers’ home lives. But the companies are also finding that it’s not so simple, facing issues related to privacy, telecom regulations and emergency services — as well as the potential that consumers will be wary that their conversations are being recorded.
The Wall Street Journal reports it’s all “part of a broader race among tech giants to create and install digital assistants in everything from cars to homes,” and that “adding phone capability is a way to tack on more functions, which could lead to greater adoption and more frequent use.” If Amazon and Google do launch the phone feature, it could both “diminish the dwindling landline business and take attention away from smartphones.”
Sources say Amazon began working on the phone feature the year after it launched Echo in 2014, but was slowed down by employee turnover. The company’s Fire smartphone also tanked in 2014, while its Echo has shipped more than 11 million units, estimates Morgan Stanley.
Google Home came to market in late 2016, but the company has more experience with telephones, “running voice, text and other online communications services for about a decade” as well as “working on voice recognition and transcription software as part of its Android operating system for years.”
Echo and Google Home are always on, recording audio in chunks that are transmitted to the cloud, and both companies use the data to train their AI capabilities, a concern to consumers.
“We’re headed to a world of embedded sensors in everything, that measure everything, that see everything, that hear everything,” said Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society director of privacy Albert Gidari. “The reality is that technology … kind of blurs law for privacy.”
Amazon says it will only collect what numbers were dialed, not the conversations, and the existing Google Voice app also only keeps metadata, SMS messages, voicemails and calls that users have recorded.
Details on how the Echo and Home would actually function are being worked out, as the companies consider a variety of options and examine concerns. One issue is 911 calls, since most Internet calling services don’t allow for emergency calls. Amazon and Google also have to consider “how the phone feature would mesh with federal laws requiring phone companies to allow law enforcement agencies to wiretap calls in real time.”
Currently, app-to-app Internet calls such as WhatsApp and FaceTime as well as Skype “are immune to the law,” but “whether it would apply to phone calls made on the Echo or Google Home is unclear.”