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If you ask Alexa, Amazon’s smart speaker, that she is spying on you. She replies, “I only send audio back to Amazon when I hear you say the wake word. For more information and to view Amazon’s privacy notice, visit the help section of your Alexa app.”
This reply sounds so naive and gives little hint of the sea of data Amazon’s smart speaker captures and stores. To understand the data collection size of ‘Echo’ speaker, Dave Bryant, who has created and sold a multi-million dollar e-commerce store, requested all of his personal data from Amazon. It ended up being a massive 1.28 GB of data.
He found that Alexa accounts for more than 90% of the data saved by Amazon. “Amazon is probably trying to create a comprehensive profile of our family using all the information it gathers from our family’s interactions with Alexa. How many members in our family are there? Are there any kids? And so forth,” Bryant wrote in a blog.
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Currently, Alexa is building the profile of consumers solely based on voice interaction. Imagine, if it combines the information of all the IoT devices working in your household and builds your consumer profile.
Amazon on an acquisition spree
In 2015, Amazon acquired ‘2lemetry’, a Denver-based startup that developed an enterprise-focused platform to track and manage IP-enabled machines and other connected devices.
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Three years later, it acquired ‘Ring’, a smart-camera-equipped doorbells startup for a whopping $1 billion. The Amazon investment was aimed at enabling Rings’ products to connect with Alexa APIs and features, enabling consumers to use voice to access camera feeds directly from Echo Show and Fire TV.
In December 2018, Amazon paid an estimated $90 million for the acquisition of ‘Blink’, a startup known for its proprietary chip-based home security cameras and video doorbell. Amazon made a wise decision in expanding its position in the security industry by acquiring Ring after Blink.
In early 2020, it announced the acquisition of ‘Eero’, a router-maker that also develops technology around Wi-Fi.
Now, Amazon is planning to acquire ‘iRobot’, the manufacturer of the famous ‘Roomba’, a robot vacuum. The deal is expected to be nearly $1.7 billion in size. If the deal is approved, Amazon will have access to yet another source of personal data along with inside maps of Roomba users’ houses. This yet-to-be materialized deal has spooked many. Perhaps even more than usual because iRobot builds robots for the US military.
Alexa is more than a smart speaker now
According to Consumer Intelligence Research Partners, users with Echo smart speakers spent more on Amazon.com than other Amazon shoppers. Users who owned Echo smart speakers spent around $1,700 on Amazon.com in 2017, $700 more than the typical Amazon shopper and $400 more than the average Prime member.
The important factor is how simple it is for customers to ask Amazon’s voice-controlled digital assistant, Alexa, to order new things or reorder items they’ve previously purchased.
Amazon is exploiting this comfort zone of users and adding new devices that will be controlled by Alexa.
Experts say that as Amazon is becoming more central to the growing smart-home market—these moves that fuse tech and retail are becoming more important for the company.
Too much personal data collection is a concern
When Alexa hit the market, the device would work with IoT devices in a different way. After receiving the command “Alexa, turn on the light”, the program would query the light bulb manufacturer’s servers for the bulb’s current condition. Alexa would command the light to turn on after receiving confirmation that the switch was turned off.
Amazon and Google are now recommending that smart home manufacturers change their code to reverse that connection. Instead, the light bulb must constantly send its condition to the hub.
Besides, Amazon has a history of developing or purchasing technologies that make people worried about data privacy concerns.
In 2017, iRobot CEO Colin Angle hinted in a Reuters interview that the business would someday share the data with tech companies building smart home gadgets and AI helpers.
According to experts, if law enforcement or governments seek access, having so much information about people in the hands of a single firm risks becoming a single point of failure for democracy and human rights.
The concern is based on a valid ground. In 2020, Amazon’s ‘Ring’, after getting accused of espionage from civil rights organisations, admitted doing partnerships with police and fire departments and sharing home video footage with law enforcement without a warrant.
What Amazon says
According to Amazon, it uses users’ personal information to improve its services—“We utilize your voice input, photographs, videos, and other personal information when you use our voice, image, and camera services in order to answer your requests, deliver the service you’ve requested to you, and enhance our services.”
Though the company claims that the data it collects is for personalisation and to improve users’ online experience, it reveals a lot about users. With continuous feed received from different devices, it’s keeping a watch on the day-to-day activities of users, which is perhaps the most creepy part of this personal data repository of Amazon’s users.