Amazon Echo and Alexa: How it has made the world a more dangerous place

LG Electronics’ vice president David VanderWaal and Amazon Echovice president Mike George present the LG Smart InstaView Door-in-Door Refrigerator to CES 2017 attendees at the LG Electronics press conference on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2017, in Las Vegas. (Jack Dempsey/ AP)

“I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that,” the words ominously said by Hal 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey, directed by Stanley Kubrick, could soon be repeated in your very own homes. With the introduction of Google Home and Amazon Echo, technology today is a lot closer to realizing this reality than ever before. Such devices were so popular this gift giving season that, according to Amazon, the top three electronic gifts purchased were Amazon Echo Dot Black, Amazon Echo Dot White and Amazon Fire TV Stick with Alexa, being the artificial intelligence (AI) behind the Echo technology https://www.amazon.com/gp/most-gifted.

For those who missed the newest innovation in laziness, the Echo is basically a personal assistant. Why pick up the phone and order a pizza to be delivered to your home when you can just tell Alexa to do it?

Innovation is inevitable. Yesterday’s science fiction is today’s reality. But is this really a step in the right direction? A simple search online will unearth thousands of studies comparing the rise of technology to the increase health and social problems such as obesity and depression. The simple fact is that the less one must do, the less one does. This includes everything from getting off the couch and interacting with the world to seeing your family members instead of texting them.

Alexa, in essence, is a personal assistant. Not Ironman-Jarvis personal assistant, but one that can handle basic instructions like “turn the lights off.” At the current level of innovation, Alexa is rather harmless herself. The real issue with the Amazon Echo, however, is security. In ideal conditions, the Echo is activated by saying “Alexa” at the start of the command. This hands-free activation is only possible if the device it listening constantly. Under questioning, Amazon has stated that the company only records and keeps records of what is said after the “Alexa” command but whether that is true is yet to be seen.

It is foreseeable that the Echo can be a weak point of access to criminals. With all the hacking that is in the news today, whether it be Yahoo or the Hillary Clinton’s campaign, how can you be sure your personal information isn’t at risk? If a thief could access recordings from an Echo, he could learn private information that could lead to identity theft or learn your movement patterns to break into your home.

This is not Amazon’s worse nightmare, however, for that came in November 2015 when Victor Collins was found dead in the tub belonging to James Bates. Bates’ home was equipped with many smart devices including one Alexa (https://www.engadget.com/2016/12/27/amazon-echo-audio-data-murder-case/). After finding signs of struggle including blood and broken glass, police arrested Bates (https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/28/business/amazon-echo-murder-case-arkansas.html). Bates pled not guilty.

In a hope to find more evidence, police turned to Alexa, who is equipped with seven microphones to pick up sound, hoping to get any evidence. Petitions asking Amazon to release all, if any, saved voice files have all been denied by the company. What should Amazon do?

Honestly, there is no good answer to this. Customers like that Amazon is not giving away information at the highest bidder, but why isnt? If Amazon had information in regards to a murder, doesn’t it have a moral obligation to help convict the felon? But if Amazon gave into this police request, should they give into any police request, substantial or not? Should it give into a government request? Plus, Amazon has not said that it doesn’t have any saved audio of the murder. If Amazon was to release audio, it would prove that Alexa is recording and capturing audio even when it is not told to.

After all this, who actually wants an Alexa in their life? To be fair, it does make life easier. I guess. If you are a compulsive buyer or someone who orders things on Amazon more often than you drink water, Alexa might be the thing for you.

In comparison to what science fiction tells us is possible, Alexa is rather elementary. But we must ask ourselves how far this artificial intelligence will go, how far it will take us, and whether or not we should allow it.


David Csordas is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at david.csordas@uconn.edu.