Is Your Data Safe With Amazon Echo?

Amazon Echo smart speakers have been a rather popular gift this holiday season. In a press release yesterday, Amazon revealed that the company sold 9 times more smart home devices than it did this time last year. Now millions of homes around the world have Echo’s AI assistant, Alexa, to cater to their needs.

The utility and novelty of smart home technology like Echo is undeniable. After all, who isn’t excited about the prospect of ordering pizza without having to lift a finger? However, it is important to recognize that this type of technology may undermine your privacy. With Echo’s aural interface, the device is always listening, just in case someone gives it a command. In other words, “Big Brother is watching you”.

Should You Be Worried?

It could very well be possible that Alexa is recording and storing every conversation in your home. However, Amazon claims otherwise. According to the company, Echo only streams/stores a fraction of a second of audio before it detects its “wake word”, along with the audio of the command itself. Since Alexa is powered by AI, “she” stores your command history to help make her “smarter”. That way, Alexa can better respond to your future commands. While Amazon’s reasoning behind storing your command data is sound, imagine what could go wrong if someone else gets access to that data?

Amazon does let you delete specific voice recordings in the Alexa App. You can also delete your entire Echo history on Amazon’s website. However, Amazon cautions against doing so, warning that deleting voice recordings “may degrade your Alexa experience”. On the flip side, Amazon is also seemingly dedicated to protecting its Echo customers’ privacy. The company is refusing to provide authorities with the Alexa data of a man accused of murder. Amazon defended its action, affirming that it will not allow data access to third parties “without a valid and binding legal demand”.

While this move sets precedent for future concerns about Echo data, user information is still vulnerable. Police claim that they eventually extracted information from the alleged murderer’s Echo device without Amazon’s help. Whose to say that others couldn’t easily do the same?

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safe is risky

Organizations can spot the risks of a new idea a mile away. But there’s a curious blind spot when it comes to the risks of not taking those risks. The path of least resistance is to play it safe and keep the idea as close to the tried-and-true as possible. We just need to ask Polaroid how that strategy works in the long run.

I stumbled across an interesting HBR article from Bill Taylor called “Playing It Safe Is Riskier Than You Think”. In it, he writes about an analogy of risk first framed by two business professors 25 years ago.

“Executives and entrepreneurs face two very different sorts of risks. One is that their organization will make a bold move that failed — a risk they call ‘sinking the ship.’ The other is that their organization will fail to make a bold move that would have succeeded — a risk they call ‘missing the boat.’

“Naturally, most executives worry more about sinking the boat than missing the boat, which is why so many organizations, even in flush times, are so cautious and conservative. To me, though, the opportunity for executives and entrepreneurs is to recognize the power of rocking the boat — searching for big ideas and small wrinkles, inside and outside the organization, that help you make waves and change course.”

When we’re leading a project, particularly at a large company, I think that’s a big part of our job — to continually find ways to rock the boat. The most remarkable ideas go against the flow. But we don’t want to sacrifice the remarkable parts of the idea for the comfort of a smoother ride.

It’s easier than ever to prototype just about every aspect of our ideas to make them come to life. But in most stage gate meetings I’ve attended, where ideas are presented for approval, every idea is shoehorned into the exact same boring PowerPoint template. In that environment, the “safest” idea will win, not the most remarkable.

A few years ago, I heard Doug Hall lead an innovation workshop, and his session on managing risks really struck a chord with me. He said that “meaningfully unique ideas spark fear. Fear causes shut down. The secret to reducing fear is to make the unknown known. We need to turn killer issues into manageable threats”. I think we rock the boat by continually prototyping the unknowns of our ideas so that they become known.

We can’t change the inherent risk aversion of an organization. But we can rock the boat.

(Marketoonist Monday: I’m giving away a signed print of this week’s cartoon. Just share an insightful comment to this week’s post by 5:00 PST on Monday. Thanks!)

Tom Fishburne: Marketoonist