What it is: Amazon Echo is a stand-alone version of a voice-activated assistant much like Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana, but be careful of privacy issues.
Apple introduced the first popular voice-activated assistant in Siri and Google, Microsoft, and Amazon quickly offered their own version. Amazon’s Echo in particular is interesting because it’s a stand-alone item that’s always ready just by saying “Alexa.” In comparison, other company’s voice-activated assistants require a computer or mobile device.
While voice-activated assistants are getting smarter and more accurate, they’re also a privacy risk. One fear is that voice-activated assistants could eavesdrop on conversations and allow hackers to spy and record people without their knowledge. The safest option is not to use a voice-activated assistant at all, but that’s like saying the safest way to avoid getting killed in a car crash is to avoid driving, riding, or even walking any place where there are cars. The benefits of cars outweigh the risk of getting into a car accident. Likewise, the benefits of voice-activated assistants outweigh the security risks.
Beyond simply not using a voice-activated assistant, a second approach is to turn it off except when you need it. This is how voice-activated assistants work on computers and mobile devices, but this makes Amazon’s Echo less convenient to use since it’s whole purpose is to be ready to answer questions at all times.
to fully understand the risks behind voice-activated assistants, you need to understand how they work. They do record your conversations when you use them. That’s to provide enough data to better adapt to your questions over time. If you choose to delete your past recorded conversations, the voice-activated assistant won’t get smarter over time when conversing with you. This might be an acceptable tradeoff for some, but it does make the voice-activated assistant less useful.
While voice-activated assistants do record individual conversations, they only record when you activate it. Although Amazon’s Echo listens at all times, it does not record anything until you activate Alexa. However, there is a threat that hackers could activate an Echo’s microphone in the same way that hackers can secretly activate the microphone and webcam on a computer without your knowledge.
So yes, there is a danger that voice-activated assistants can record your conversations because that’s the data they use to get smarter listening to you. You can delete recorded conversations to avoid keeping a record of what you said, at the expense of degraded performance. And yes, hackers could listen in to your conversations without your knowledge.
Using a voice-activated assistant is a trade-off. If you’re worried about privacy, don’t use a voice-activated assistant. If you’re willing to accept the potential loss of privacy in exchange for convenience, use a voice-activated assistant. Just be aware that such devices can secretly record your conversations if hacked, but that’s no different than someone hacking your computer. The chances are low, but definitely possible.
The makers of voice-activated assistants aren’t purposely making their products invade your privacy, but they are making it possible for others to abuse your trust. It all boils down to choice. Some people still don’t sue a computer so they never have to worry about viruses or randomware, but at the same time, they also never have the benefit of using a computer.
Use voice-activated assistants knowing that they do record only your conversation when you’re interacting with it. If the advantages outweigh the drawbacks, then feel free to use a voice-activated assistant. This technology is going to get better and more prevalent so expect to be talking to machines in the future anyway.