Amazon's Echo: It Can Hear You Now

You might recall a recent Signals column about a Google patent application that described an anthropomorphic entertainment controller. The microphones/ears and cameras/eyes of the proposed Chucky-like device really creeped me out. Then a reader alerted me to an Amazon product that has similar functionality. It's not a document in the Patent Office; it's a real thing keeping tabs on people in their homes.

Amazon has an interesting history of offering its own unique products, the Kindle probably being the most familiar. The Echo is another such Amazon offering. It is a well-designed and useful product that, given the high scores of its 26,000 customer reviewers, is making lots of people very happy. It is also, in my opinion, troubling.

The Echo is a self-powered speaker with WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity. Cylindrical, it measures 9.25 x 3.27 inches. The case houses a 2.0-inch tweeter and 2.5-inch woofer. Unlike most speakers, the Echo has a 7-microphone array with beam forming, and that enables its most interesting feature. It can hear your voice, even while music is playing, and that allows voice-controlled operation. Moreover, since it is connected to the Cloud, it provides a Siri/OK Google/Cortana-type service. (In this case, its name is "Alexa.")

Alexa can connect you to Amazon Music, Prime Music, Pandora, iHeartRadio, TuneIn, and other services. It also responds to commands and queries such as, "Add ice cream to my shopping list," How is traffic?," "How tall is Mount Everest?," and so on. Compatible with home systems such as the Belkin WeMo, it can also operate lights and switches. There is no subscription fee, however some of the features (like Prime Music) are only available to Amazon Prime members. Clearly, Amazon would like to use Echo to steer you to its products and services. You can read Barb Gonzalez' full review here.

I was uneasy with the Google patent application because it specifically calls for a doll or animal toy as its housing, to make it easier to anthropomorphize. But my principle objection was that the invention's cameras and microphones were continuously jacked into the Web. I have the same problem with the Echo's microphone array. Yes, it needs a "wake word" before it initiates voice recognition. But does the system have sufficient (or any) safeguards to prevent hacking? How difficult would it be for a hacker to tap into the microphone, or into the server? For that matter, could an employee at the Cloud service get access to your microphones? FYI, reviewers report that the array can recognize voices that are 20 to 30 feet away. If you think such hacking is improbable, read my comments on the Stagefright virus.

Convenience versus privacy. Expediency versus security. Our computers and phones, and now our audio systems, are crossing those lines. Products such as the Echo have real benefits. In fact, it's probably an awesome product. For example, one customer reviewer describes how her wheelchair-bound husband uses a voice-controlled Echo to control music playback, house lights, etc. It is wonderful that an audio product can provide that kind of functionality. The same reviewer also mentions how her granddaughter uses it to check her math homework. When's the last time your AV receiver did that? Importantly, this new generation of smart products like the Echo brings audio/video back into the mainstream of consumer electronics. Without this kind of innovation, it is possible that A/V would slip further behind the curve. With products like the Echo, suddenly consumers are excited about audio again. That is awesome.

But I worry about the potential downside. I don't trust the technology. In this case, I'm not sure I trust Amazon. I've occasionally been accused of being a cheerleader for new technology. I've never been accused of being a Luddite. If I had to decide to either place an Echo in my house where it would hear anything I say and always be connected to the Web, or be called a Luddite, I would greatly prefer being called a Luddite.

Amazon's Echo. Probably the harbinger of the future of audio/video. But is it just a very cool product, or a white flag of the surrender of our privacy? You decide.

Oh, speaking of cybersecurity, next time you fly, don't just throw away your boarding pass. Hackers can easily scan the QR code and potentially gain access to your frequent-flier account. Just sayin'.

ednaz's picture

There have been several really frightening reports of baby monitor hacking, including where they played creepy music and made threats over the monitor. It's bonehead easy to do. There are some very sick people out there, which is why Alexa's unlikely to make it into my home.