There's more than Teddy Bears ....

An Amazon Echo device provide a voice interface in your home, this is convenient but it also may lead to some unexpected, and unplanned, consequences. Credit: IEEE "The Institute"

Just last week I reported on a nice Teddy Bear (a Teddy Elephant, actually) developed by "Politecnico di Milano" to listen to a kid and help an analyst to get better insight on the kid situation and his evolution as result of the therapy.  I pointed out that this kind of objects, able to capture what is going on in their surrounding, may pose privacy concern as they become more and more ubiquitous. Now I just saw an article published on IEEE "The Institute" on a request from the police in Arkansas, US, to Amazon to release the recording of an Echo device that happened to be in a house where a murder took place.

Echo listens to sounds around it to capture the wake up word "Alexa" and then enters into an interaction mode looking for a voice command. This is processed, and recorded, on the Amazon Cloud. In theory, Echo is not recording any sound that is not part of an interaction, hence, following the wake up word Alexa. The police, either did not know that or thought the victim might have woken up Echo to leave a message.  

The point, however, is more general. I guess we can trust Amazon when it says Echo is not recording (in the Cloud) anything unless it is a specific command, but what if someone hacks into Echo and use it as a microphone into my home? 

We are shifting from a keyboard based input to a voice (and gesture) based input and this is opening up new doors for hackers.  True, today you can have your computer hacked, but it is something one can control. It gets more complicated as more and more devices become potential entry points for hackers.

Moreover, when you type on your keyboard you are focussing on that, whilst when you talk you are, in general, not talking to a specific device and so you are not paying attention to possible side effects. Having one of the "mikes", that will become ubiquitous in your home, hijacked by some hackers can be fraught with (unpleasant) consequences.

Interesting, in the IEEE article, the information that by having a television show including the word "Alexa" in the actors dialogue resulted hundreds of Echo were awoken....

And, if you are interested on the answer of Amazon to the request of releasing a copy of what that Echo device recorded in their Cloud ... well, it was "No". Now it may seem that it would have been better to help the police investigation in this case, but what about an investigation on tax evasion, on affiliation to a certain political group.... It is a slippery slope once you start to open up windows on personal data.

Author - Roberto Saracco

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