Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : July 30th 2015 Contents JULY 30 • 2015 www.guardian.co.tt BUSINESS GUARDIAN
NEWS | BG11
Like a lot of teenagers, Aanya Nigam reflex-
ively shares her whereabouts, activities and
thoughts on Twitter, Instagram and other
social networks without a qualm.
But Aanya s care-free attitude dissolved into
paranoia a few months ago shortly after her
mother bought Amazon s Echo, a digital assis-
tant that can be set up in a home or office
to listen for various requests, such as for a
song, a sports score, the weather, or even a
book to be read aloud.
After using the Internet-connected device
for two months, Aanya, 16, started to worry
that the Echo was eavesdropping on conver-
sations in her Issaquah, Washington, living
room. So she unplugged the device and hid
it in a place that her mother, Anjana Agarwal,
still hasn t been able to find.
"I guess there is a difference between decid-
ing to share something and having something
captured by something that you don t know
when it s listening," Agarwal said of her daugh-
ter s misgivings.
The Echo, a US$180 cylindrical device that
began general shipping in July after months
of public testing, is the latest advance in voice-
recognition technology that s enabling
machines to record snippets of conversation
that are analyzed and stored by companies
promising to make their customers lives bet-
ter.Other increasingly popular forms of voice-
recognition services include Apple s Siri assis-
tant on mobile devices, Microsoft s Cortana
and the "OK Google" feature for speaking to
Google s search engine. Spoken commands
can also be used to find something to watch
on some TVs, and an upcoming Barbie doll
will include an Internet-connected microphone
to hear what s being said.
These innovations will confront people with
a choice pitting convenience against privacy
as they decide whether to open another digital
peephole into their lives for a growing number
of devices equipped with Internet-connected
microphones and cameras.
The phenomenon, dubbed the "Internet of
Things," promises to usher in an era of auto-
mated homes outfitted with locks, lights, ther-
mostats, entertainment systems and servants
such as the Echo that respond to spoken words.
It s also raising the specter of Internet-con-
nected microphones being secretly used as a
wiretap, either by a company providing a digital
service, government officials with court orders
or intruders that seize control of the equip-
"We are on the trajectory of a future filled
with voice-assisted apps and voice-assisted
devices," Forrester Research analyst Fatemeh
Khatibloo says. "This is going to require finding
the fine balance between creating a really great
user experience and something that s creepy."
Fears about Internet surveillance have
heightened during the past two years as former
National Security Agency contractor Edward
Snowden released documents revealing that
the U.S. government s terrorist-fighting pro-
grams have included mining personal infor-
mation collected by a variety of technology
The Electronic Privacy Information Center,
a watchdog group, wants the Federal Trade
Commission to set security standards and
strict limitations on the storage and use of
personal information collected through Inter-
net-connected microphones and cameras.
"We think it s misleading to only present
the potential conveniences of this technology
without also presenting the huge number of
possible drawbacks," said Julia Horwitz, director
of the center s privacy project.
The FTC believes companies selling Inter-
net-connected devices and apps should collect
as little personal data as possible and quickly
delete it once the information has served its
purpose, said Kristen Anderson, an attorney
with the commission s division of privacy and
Amazon.com says Echo users don t need
to worry about the device eavesdropping on
them. As a safeguard, according to Amazon,
the device s microphone is programmed to
come on only after it s activated with the press
of a button or the use of a certain word, such
as Alexa, the name of the software that powers
A blue light on the Echo also comes on
when it s recording and remains illuminated
when it s listening. Users can also select a
sound to alert them when the Echo is record-
ing. Amazon also allows users to review the
recordings made by the Echo and delete any
or all of them, although the Seattle company
warns the device might not work as well with-
out access to the audio history.
The Echo so far is getting mostly glowing
reviews. It has received a five-star or four-
star rating from about 90 percent of the rough-
ly 23,000 reviews posted on Amazon.com.
Despite what Amazon says, Steven Combs
has noticed the Echo s blue light illuminate
at times when it hasn t been asked during the
six months he has been using a test version
of the device in his Columbus, Indiana, home.
But he says he has never worried about being
"Somebody would have to have a real interest
in me, and I don t think I am that interesting
for someone to come after my data," said
Combs, the president of a community col-
Michael Feldman, 61, started to wonder
about the Echo s snooping potential within
the first few weeks after he set up the device
in his home in Huntington Woods, Michigan.
He frets about the possibility of government
agencies using the Echo or similar devices as
a surveillance tool, though that concern hasn t
been enough to cause him to turn off the
device s microphone.
"After you have lived long enough, you
realize people will be willing to bring spying
technology into their own house if they think
it will do something great for them," Feldman
Will the Internet listen to
your private conversations?
This file product image provided by Amazon shows the Amazon Echo,
the latest advance in voice-recognition technology that's enabling
machines to record snippets of conversation that are analyzed and
stored by companies promising to make their customers' lives better.
But the Internet-connected microphones and cameras on the devices
are also raising the specter of them being used by corporations or
hackers to snoop on private conversations
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