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Amazon says it won’t stop recording user interactions with Alexa

Can Congress step in quickly enough to corral the tracking of personal data, or is that protection gone forever?

Photo (c) seewhatmitchsee - Getty Images
Ever wish you could be a fly on the wall? Listen to people’s conversations? Get an inside look at what goes on inside someone’s house?

Well, Alexa -- Amazon’s digital fly on the wall -- has such a vista. Reports suggest that Amazon employees are tasked with listening to user commands at the same time as Alexa, and lawsuits allege that the company monitors conversations between children. But despite all that, Amazon says it’s not going to stop recording Alexa users.

USA Today reports that it was able to buttonhole Amazon senior vice president Dave Limp at last week’s product rollout and ask why.

Limp said that while the practice of recording user interactions with Alexa is not going away, it has decided to employ new privacy controls that will allow users to set up a request that will automatically delete all recordings either every three or 18 months. But there’s a kicker -- opting out of the recording process is not an option.

"We don’t keep data for data's sake," Limp said. "We‘re very convicted that by keeping this data… it improves the service materially."

It’s probably not the answer the super vigilant consumer wants, but Limp claims that Alexa’s accuracy improves "because of our ability to use the data.” As an example, the executive pointed to in-house research covering a three-month period when Alexa released in India. Data during that time period indicated that Alexa’s ability to interpret and reply with correct, usable responses improved by 33 percent due to the company’s information collection practices.

Every breath you take

Amazon’s stance begs the question: why do tech companies need to know what we’re doing in the first place? There’s no question that consumers should have control over their personal data, but wrestling the issue to the floor is like herding cats. 

“Because technology is evolving so rapidly these days, the usual regulatory and legislative mechanisms have no way of keeping up,” Robert Epstein, Senior Research Psychologist at American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology, says

“Aggressive monitoring systems will not only be able to keep pace with the new technologies, they might even be able to keep a step ahead, scanning the technological landscape for irregularities and exposing thuggish behavior before it can do much damage.”

Home assistance devices like Amazon Alexa, Microsoft’s Invoke, and Google Assistant are on their way to becoming everyday home appliances like toasters and microwaves. But consumers have to remember that they’re the ones bringing the gadgets into their homes to begin with, and they need to be aware that those types of products are multiplying like rabbits -- especially at Amazon. Just last week, the company unveiled new Alexa-enabled earphones and eyeglasses.

Business titans recently begged Congress to create stricter consumer privacy laws, and Epstein warns that the time for the U.S. to put its finger in the data leak dike is now.

“Without such systems in place to protect us, two billion more people will be drawn into this Orwellian web within the next five years, and the recent proliferation of home assistant devices, as well as the rapidly expanding internet of things -- projected to encompass 30 billion devices by 2020  -- will make new forms of mind control possible that we cannot now even imagine,” Epstein cautioned.

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