June 18, 2018
Senators Jeff Flake and Chris Coons asked Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos to explain how the Echo smart speaker listens to and stores users’ voices — and what his company does to protect users’ data. Their concern is sparked by such incidents as an Echo device that mistook background conversation for voice commands of a Portland, Oregon woman, and then sent the private conversation to one of her contacts. Flake and Coons are, respectively, chair and ranking member of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law.
Wired reports that Flake noted Congress’ heightened sensitivities to data privacy in the wake of Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal. “Congress is feeling that we need to be ahead of the curve here,” he said. “Companies are establishing procedures and protocols, and we need to know what they are to make sure that privacy is protected.”
They pointed to the Echo incident in Portland as not a “glitch,” but rather as a result of the device working “precisely how it was designed.” Their letter to Bezos demanded “prompt and meaningful action” to prevent a repeat of that event. “Amazon owes it to the American people to be clearer about what’s happening with this technology,” said Coons.
Their letter asks 30 questions, among them how many complaints Amazon has received about “the Echo improperly interpreting a command,” and “details on when and how frequently the device sends voice data to Amazon’s servers, how long that recording is stored, and how that data is anonymized.” The senators also want to know “how long Echo records a conversation after it hears the word ‘Alexa’, and whether consumers have the ability to delete these recordings.”
Wired notes that some of these answers are “a matter of public record,” while others “warrant further exploration.” One of the latter is an explanation for “any and all purposes for which Amazon uses, stores, and retains consumer information, including voice data, collected and transmitted by an Echo device,” which is information that “may be buried in the company’s terms of service somewhere.”
The mishap in Portland was “hardly the first time users have reported their AI assistants misbehaving,” including eerie incidents when users reported their Echoes laughed at them after mishearing a command as “Alexa, laugh.”
“While these flukes make good headlines, the odds of an Amazon Echo mishearing its way through the multi-step process of sending a voice recording are slim,” said Wired, which added that, “the senators’ questions for Amazon are still valid.” With the Facebook debacle, it’s now clear how data can be manipulated for political purposes.
“The age of innocence is gone,” said Flake.