Why You Should NEVER Buy an Amazon Echo or Even Get Near One

As the Philadelphia meetup, I got to chat at some length with a reader who had a considerable high end IT background, including at some cutting-edge firms, and now has a job in the Beltway where he hangs out with military-surveillance types. He gave me some distressing information on the state of snooping technology, and as we’ll get to shortly, is particularly alarmed about the new “home assistants” like Amazon Echo and Google Home.

He pointed out that surveillance technology is more advanced than most people realize, and that lots of money and “talent” continues to be thrown at it. For instance, some spooky technologies are already decades old. Forgive me if this is old hat to readers:

Edward Snowden has disabled the GPS, camera, and microphone on his cell phone to reduce his exposure. As most readers probably know, both the microphone and the camera can be turned on even when the phone has been turned off. He uses headphones to make calls. This makes the recent phone design trend away from headphone jacks look particularly nefarious.

“Laser microphones” can capture conversations by shining a laser on a window pane and interpreting the vibrations. However, this isn’t really a cause for worry since there are easier ways to spy on meetings.

With a voice recording (think a hostage tape), analysts can determine the room size, number of people in the room, and even make a stab at the size and placement of objects, particularly if they get more than one recording from the same site.

But what really got this reader worked up was Amazon’s Echo, the device that allows users to give voice instructions to a device that will tell your TV to stream video or audio. order from Amazon or other participating vendors, provide answers to simple search queries, like “Tell me the weather,” perform simple calculations, and allow you to order around smart devices in your home that are on the networks. like tell your coffee maker to make some coffee. He said, “I’d never take one of them out of the box.”

He was at a party recently with about 15-20 people when the host decided to show off her Echo. She called across the room, “Alexa, tell me the capital of Wisconsin,” and Alexa dutifully responded.

Based on his knowledge of other technologies, here is what he argues was happening:

The Echo was able to pick a voice out of a crowd engaged in conversation. That means it is capable of singling out individual voice. That means it has been identifying individual voices, tagging the as “Unidentified voice 1″, Unidentified voice 2” and so on. It has already associated the voices of its owners, and if they have set up profiles for other family members, for them as well, so it knows who goes with those voices.

Those voices may be unidentified now, but as more and more voice data is being collected or provided voluntarily, people will be able to be connected to their voice. And more and more recording is being done in public places.

So now think of that party I was at. At some time in the not too distant future, analysts will be able to make queries like, “Tell me who was within 15 feet of Person X at least eight times in the last six months.” That will produce a reliable list of their family, friends, lovers, and other close associates.

CNET claims that Amazon uploads and retains voice data from the Echo only when it has been activated by calling to it and stops recording when the request ends. But given the Snowden revelations that every camera and microphone in computers and mobile devices can be and are used as viewing and listening devices even when the owner thinks


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