Amazon has become ubiquitous with life in America. Currently, over 75% of us use Amazon for our online shopping “most of the time.” Indeed, over half of all online shopping searches begin with Amazon. We’re so used to this online marketplace that many of us hardly blink an eye when Amazon suggests products we might be interested in based on the data it has collected from us through the years. Some would argue that we’re so resigned to the company’s use of our data that we actually expect and appreciate those suggestions. Yet, there are other, more insidious, ways that Amazon is entering our lives. And, chances are, consumers haven’t quite wrapped their heads around the privacy invasions occurring because of Alexa and Ring.
Amazon Alexa And Ring Devices In Our Homes And Communities
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First, of course, are the so-called smart speakers, like Amazon’s Echo/Alexa devices (we’ll refer to them simply as “Alexa” for the remainder of this article). Amazon isn’t the only company peddling these devices. Both Google and Apple sell their own versions of the same thing, but Amazon controls a near 70% market share, according to Consumer Intelligence Research Partners. That’s a significant number in a market where nearly 120 million devices have already been sold.
Moreover, in 2018, Amazon purchased a company called Ring for $839 million. Ring is a surveillance platform that records video and then sends that video to the user’s smartphone. Originally, Ring was intended to allow consumers to catch thieves and other ne’er-do-wells stealing packages delivered to the user’s front door (is it any wonder why Amazon had an interest in acquiring this company?). Today, Ring devices are used to record all sorts of video, from monitoring a child’s bedroom to keeping track of domestic workers.
Finally, Amazon also has a facial-recognition capability called, fittingly, “Rekognition.” According to Amazon’s own site, Rekognition allows users to add machine learning to existing applications in order to “identify objects, people, text, scenes, and activities in images and video.” Amazon is marketing Rekognition heavily to government police forces, who are already undertaking “real-time government surveillance through police body cameras and the smart cameras blanketing many cities.”
So, what’s the problem? The Data Collected By Alexa And Ring Devices
There wouldn’t be a problem if Amazon allowed consumers to have sole ownership and control of the data collected by Alexa and Ring devices. Without a doubt, Amazon would argue that it fully informs consumers of its intended uses of data collected via these devices within its User Agreements. That may be a valid legal argument. The reality, however, is that over 90% of Americans never read such agreements (for users aged 18-34, the number hovers at around 97%). When we want to use a device, app, or software product, we simply click “I agree” and move on. Amazon knows this.
As for Rekognition, both the ACLU and Electronic Frontier Foundation are arguing that Amazon’s product gives the government unrestrained surveillance capabilities, which cannot co-exist with a free democracy. To be sure, these three devices change the game when it comes to the privacy rights Americans have so long enjoyed. If you don’t believe these things are a problem, read on.
Consider, for example, the Alexa “quirk” experienced by a couple in Portland, Oregon. Their Alexa device recorded a conversation the couple had in the privacy of their own home and -- without prompting -- sent that conversation to a friend located nearly 200 miles away in Seattle, Washington. While Amazon brushed off the situation as an anomaly, tell that to the couple who had no idea their conversations were being recorded and sent out at random.
Serious Privacy Issues
If that story isn’t startling enough, consider the fact that Amazon's Alexa snd Ring is consistently listening to conversations in its users’ homes and offices. Ostensibly, Amazon employs thousands of listeners just for the purpose of improving its voice-recognition software. At times, the task is as daunting for listeners as it is for unsuspecting consumers -- at least two such listeners have reported overhearing potential sexual assaults. But notwithstanding the fact that they are present in your home, they’ve been instructed not to interfere. It’s hard to determine who is in the right and who is in the wrong in such scenarios. If we’ve allowed them into our homes, can’t they at least call the police when we’re being attacked?
As for Ring, there is a more consistent problem going on. Indeed, one investigation found that the Ring App used by Android phone owners was sending all sorts of Personally Identifiable Information (“PII”) to marketing companies and others. PII included highly sensitive information such as “names, private IP addresses, mobile network carriers, persistent identifiers, and sensor data on the devices of paying customers.” Is that what consumers really wanted when they signed up for this “security” device? In fact, the problem is so bad that one former Amazon engineer is calling for all such devices to be “shut down immediately.” For their part, Ring/Amazon seek to assure us that this data is only being used for “appropriate purposes.”
What Can Consumers Do About Alexa And Ring?
Many people are shocked when they read these stories. Perhaps they should be. Nonetheless, there are a few precautions consumers can take to avoid these privacy invasions.
First and foremost, scour the privacy settings provided with your Alexa and Ring devices/apps. If you see any setting that affords you greater privacy, by all means, turn it on. Also take the time to read and understand the privacy information Amazon provides to you. If it doesn’t make sense to you, ask them questions. You may not get an immediate reply from the company, but they know the media risks involved in ignoring you altogether.
Next -- and this is advice coming from a long-time cybersecurity expert -- consider whether you need these devices at all. Really sit down and consider how you use the devices. Do you listen to music? Podcasts? Have you really caught any thieves at your front door? Is there a way you can accomplish any of that without opening your home to possible 24/7 surveillance?
If you’re truly concerned about your privacy, your best bet may be to simply give up Alexa and Ring devices. Get a record player. Start an old-school neighborhood watch group. Do something that doesn’t expose your private information to the world. Or, accept the risk and don’t be surprised when it comes back to bite you.
Bruce Anderson is the co-founder of eEnforce, a brand protection firm, as well as a freelance journalist who covers the rapid explosion of harmful activities in eCommerce that adversely impacts brands, organizations and consumers. Bruce is currently a member of the FBI Infraguard, and the Secret Service Financial Crimes Task Force. He is a former police detective and is registered as a Private Investigator, specializing in investigating illegal eCommerce and brand protection activities. You can reach Bruce at [email protected]