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    • martha

      Just read this article in the Washington Post. I recently had a weird Alexa experience. We don't have one, but my daughter and I were staying in a vacation rental apartment in Tacoma a few weeks back. They had the little Echo "dot" thing there. We thought it was weird that the lights on it would randomly start spinning/glowing/turning on - don't remember exactly what, but the lights became active in some way - while we were just sitting in the living room and never asked Alexa to wake up.

      The second night we were there, we were sitting silently, each of us reading, when it lit up again and some guy's voice started coming out of the speaker. It sounded like it was transmitting part of a telephone conversation or something; only lasted a couple of seconds then stopped. We looked at each other, and I got up and uplugged the thing. Was just too weird.

      Anyone else had strange encounters with these devices?

    • yaypie

      Yikes!

      We have an Echo in our living room and haven't had any bad experiences with it. I've avoided using the communication features though. I have no plans to give it my contact list, and I'd never put one in a non-common area of the house like a bedroom. Too creepy.

    • louisgray

      Keep in mind I work for Google and really like the Google Homes we have throughout our house. (See January post) One thing I like about Google is that we do our best to give you access to your data. It's yours! Get rid of it, or transfer it to another service, etc.

      You should always know what we do - and that includes a history of voice searches you've done on Google Home or the Google Assistant. (See: My activity)

      In this example, I can show just "Voice and Audio" searches, and if, for whatever reason, you would want to remove that history, click the three dots on the right and hit delete, and it's gone.

      My kids use our Google Homes constantly - possibly more than I do.
      See: How a Google Home in Every Room Gives My Kids Answers All Day

      It's smart to be informed about what happens with your data. And it's smart for Google to continually work to earn your trust.

    • Richard

      There was a report just the other day about Alexa surrepititously recording a conversation and sending it to someone on his contact list. Amazon confirmed it but attributed it to just an unlikely string of coincidences. That may well be true (and it's hard to see what Amazon had to gain here), but it nevertheless should be a heads up to all.

      I would not allow one of these devices into my house until two things happen: 1) they have to get much, much better, well above 99% accuracy and able to handle two languages simultaneously. My family is bilingual (English/Spanish) and often mixes the two in a single sentence. If it can't handle that, well, it just won't work for me reliably. 2) there needs to be stronger control by users over the use of their data, preferably enforced by law. I live in Europe, which today implements its General Data Protection Regulation. It's a good start, but it will take a while to see if it really prevents your house from spying on you.

      In the meantime, I can turn on my own lights, thanks. I don't need my toaster to communicate with my freezer to know when it's time to buy some more bagels. I suppose it's fun to pretend you're Captain Picard, but I think the risks of this technology far outweigh the benefits for now.

    • xorius

      I bought echo dots for every room in our house, I thought it was pretty cool at first. Then my wife was trying to use them, and it couldn't understand anything she said. Then it started picking up people who weren't talking to it. The final straw was when we had a newborn, the power went off one night and came back on; Alexa started yelling loudly everywhere in the house about not being turned off properly, not being able to connect (Because the wifi hadn't come back on yet). The baby woke up and started crying. They all got unplugged that night and never went on again.

      We still have smart lights and love them, but we use manual controls on our phones / watches now. Maybe we should just turn one on in a common area like @yaypie, though then our friends start trying to prank us by order weird things off Amazon :/

    • colegeissinger

      I also just read this article from the ACLU about this issue also. We have a Google Home Mini and have been very happy with it. Definitely haven't seen anything as sketchy as your Echo experience. From my understanding Google Home works exclusively off keywords to work, but it can still be triggered by a false keyword reading.

      Also sharing concern over the info here regarding Amazon's facial recognition software being offered to government agencies. Thoughts? Or am I becoming a paranoid old man in my 30's? :P

    • Username

      The NSA would be happy to supply an extra discount to get all these listening devices in our homes #conspiracy_oh_no! lol

    • PJ

      haha the other day my mother in law very proudly showed me that she put electrical tape over her front facing camera of her iPhone so that the facial recognition websites wouldn’t get her......

    • martha
      MMY

      Agree that these devices can do amazing things for you. I toyed with the idea of getting one for a long time because the capabilities are very cool. But there is always a downside.... The fact that they can (and have been proven to) "listen" to you even when you don't ask them to is disconcerting, to say the least. I believe that this has been shown to be true for the Google products as well, if I'm not mistaken? My niece told me the other week that she was in an airport bathroom and her Google phone started pinging or vibrating (whatever alert it was) in her pocket, and when she took it out, the phone was helpfully showing her the locations of restrooms in the airport terminal she was in. She said the only thing she can think of is that she told my nephew (her husband) that she was going to the restroom and the Voice Recognition on her phone heard her say it and started searching for bathrooms. She didn't ask it to, it just happened.

      And yes - I own my data on Google. But we have always been told we own our data on Facebook too. But the creepy thing is that these devices can listen even when we don't want them to, and apparently, in Amazon's case, transmit or record/send that to someone else. Until I can have 100% assurance that will never happen, I'm afraid I will have to pass on the cool features and do things the old-fashioned way; by looking them up on my computer, just like the pioneers did. :-)

      I've never bothered to train Siri to recognize my voice on my phone; was just too lazy. Now I think I won't ever bother.

    • Chris
      Chris MacAskill

      I heard Jeff Bezos say two fascinating things in an interview with Walt Mossberg:

      1. There is nothing that Alexa can do that your phone can't, but they felt they could make Alexa more secure. Unlike your phone, which also has a microphone to listen, Alexa does not listen until you activate it with its activation word. Whereas if a nation-state wanted to hack into your phone, they could, and then they could listen freely without you activating it. And your phone follows you pretty much everywhere.

      2. The belief they had when inventing Alexa is that removing even the smallest amount of friction makes a big difference with consumers. They believed that pulling your phone out of your pocket and unlocking it was friction, hence the need for Alexa.

      My family loves the Drop-In feature of Alexa, which you have to enable because of privacy concerns about how intrusive it could be. It's a little bit freaky to just drop-in on another Alexa in another room or a relative's house in another state and suddenly be in the conversation without them having to do anything. The kids love spying on people in other rooms that way. All you get is the little spinny light at the top indicating something's up. 😳

      I suppose some landlords could get up to mischief with that feature. 😬

    • martha

      but... what about the article about the people whose conversation was recorded and forwarded to someone in their contacts? And why do you support Alexa just started transmitting that guy's conversation to the rental I was in? I doubt either Alexa owner intended that, so probably didn't give the wake-up word and ask Alexa to perform those actions. I have been reading other articles that described how researchers demonstrated that these devices did indeed have instances of turning the microphone on even when the wake-up word was not used. So I am still not convinced that the security on them is quite at the level I would be comfortable with.

    • yaypie

      Unlike your phone, which also has a microphone to listen, Alexa does not listen until you activate it with its activation word. Whereas if a nation-state wanted to hack into your phone, they could, and then they could listen freely without you activating it. And your phone follows you pretty much everywhere.

      🤨

      Siri on the iPhone works exactly like Alexa. It listens for the activation phrase "Hey Siri" in low power mode and only begins processing other speech once it hears that phrase. No voice data actually leaves your phone until it's activated with the wake phrase.

      I wonder what Bezos thinks makes phones any more susceptible to passive eavesdropping than Alexa. It's true that phones can be made to connect to fake cell towers, but this would only allow an attacker to eavesdrop on phone calls and texts, not passive non-call audio.

      I'm not aware of any mechanism that would allow an attacker to surreptitiously turn on your phone's microphone and listen in except for possibly a court order (and I'm not sure this has ever actually happened). But if the government can order Apple to turn on a phone's microphone, they can also order Amazon to turn on Alexa's microphone, so I don't see how Alexa is any more secure.

    • I have no faith that Google will “do the right thing”. Would never have any of those devices.

    • Chris
      Chris MacAskill

      Hmmm, I think Jeff is under the impression that nation states pay $1.5 million to the Israelis to remotely hack an iPhone or $200K for an Android phone as Kevin Mitnick described. That's why the State Department policy before the Trump admin came in was to put phones in a refrigerator when they meet. Maybe we just heard the stories so many times we figured they were true when they were rumor?

    • Chris
      Chris MacAskill

      Maybe it's just my trusting nature, but I get the feeling Google really does try to do the right thing, but bad actors like Uber and maybe semi-bad actors like Facebook throw guilt by association on Amazon and Google.

      I don't get the impression Google helped their cause by doing the restaurant reservation demo without the machine disclosing it was a machine, and throwing in ums to make it sound like a human in an apparent attempt to deceive.

    • yaypie

      The $1.5 million / $200,000 sum Kevin Mitnick mentions in that video is misleading. A government can't just pay $1.5 million and get a working remote exploit for your iPhone as Kevin implies.

      Those numbers actually refer to a bounty offered by an exploit broker for remotely exploitable zero-day vulnerabilities. In other words, if you figure out a way to remotely jailbreak an iPhone, Zerodium will pay you $1.5 million.

      That should tell you how difficult it would be for anyone — even a wealthy government — to remotely hack your iPhone to enable passive listening. Of course, as Mitnick points out, if someone can get physical access to your phone, it's a bit easier. But if you have an iPhone and use a strong passcode, it will still be virtually impossible for an attacker to hack your phone even if they have it in their hands.

    • Maybe it’s the “better to ask forgiveness than permission” nature of Google and many other companies seem to practice that makes me wonder what we don’t know about behind the scenes.

    • louisgray

      This is one of those threads where I should probably just watch, given I know more about it than everything that has been public. But one of the reasons I was initially attracted to Google and what keeps me here is that I do believe the company and its many employees genuinely has the best intentions of the users in mind. I also agree this is the same for Amazon and, usually, for Apple. I don't always have these fuzzy feelings about a number of other Silicon Valley players.

      When Apple puts together a slick demo at MacWorld or WWDC etc, we know it is a highly scripted presentation, well delivered. The bugs are worked around, the software and hardware are likely not yet exactly this way, but it's what's intended.

      For a company like Google, it is a three dimensional need. What's good for the end user? What's good for the business? What's good for the company? You have to land it well on all three, and make sure you are providing real value, without introducing issues that decry existing norms on privacy, legal, notifications, etc.

      As mentioned above, I am glad that we make it clear to users that they own their data and can take it with them, or they can opt out any time. If the scale ever tilts to the point where the user gives up too much for too little in return, we all lose.

    • Richard

      Thanks for the insider view. I have no reason to doubt what you are saying, and FWIW, my own outsider feeling is that Google is more trustworthy than the other giants.

      BUT:

      1) Like any other publicly traded American corporation, your management has a fiduciary obligation to its shareholders and may be forced by legal action to be at least somewhat evil if that's where the money is.

      2) Apparently--and despite the objections of some employees--Google is participating in the development of AI technology for autonomous weapons. This would seem to be a violation of the Asilomar AI Principles, which are worth defending. So it's OK to do evil for the US military? Or is it virtuous because it's American?

      3) Even in the optimistic case that Google remains benign in the long term, the mere existence of massive databases of personal information is a threat to personal privacy and possibly liberty. Smart as Google engineers may be, there may be smarter engineers elsewhere who will find the vulnerabilities and steal information. Or the company itself could be bought out by oligarchs who don't care about anything but themselves.

      Please understand that I don't hold you personally responsible for any of my concerns. These are big issues. But yeah, I'm still wary of Google, too.

    • louisgray

      Re: "I'm still wary of Google too," yes please. That's absolutely how you should be. Hold all products and companies accountable to match your interests and ideals.

      I have had a front row seat to most all of the recent controversies, and as you can expect, when I think it makes sense, I speak up. We don't always get it right, but I think our track record is pretty good. Never perfect, but working on it constantly.

    • martha

      I want to clarify here that I do not necessarily think that Amazon, Google, Apple are deliberately allowing the devices to record surreptitiously. It just sounds to me like the security on them is not 100% yet, or they mistakenly hear something as a "wakeup" word, or there are still bugs with this new technology. I'm more inclined to believe that is true (though, one never does know). But it's still creepy that it can and occasionally does seem to happen, which is why I will wait to adopt any voice- or face-recognition products.

    • Chris

      Personally I'm dismayed at the broad brush the press tars the tech industry with. I love Kara Swisher and listen to her podcast, but she uses the term tech industry when I think she means Uber, Twitter, and Facebook. I think we're a lot better off for companies like Slack, Quora, Pinterest, nVIDIA, Netflix, Google, etc.

      I'm a scientist by background and the turn I've seen in attitudes toward science in my lifetime is pretty discouraging. I thought things like saving an estimated 300 million lives last century by eradicating smallpox would earn some confidence but the emotions around things like vaccines and climate change have turned a lot of people against science.

    • yaypie

      If you use an Android phone, you should be a little worried about malware.

      If you use an iPhone and keep it updated, there's not much reason to worry. iOS malware is extremely rare. You're not in much danger unless you're a high-value target of a powerful government, or you just never install iOS updates.

    • Once money is introduced, you end up with companies like Theranos and Mylan and many other pharmaceutical companies and the whole dot.com bust s challenge the public's trust and that makes it easy to paint with a broad brush.

      Universities profit from the sales or licensing of their patent libraries and that relationship blurs the line between learning, science for science, and science for profit. I do think profit and even the challenge of being first to discover leads to to questionable choices. Remember the University of Utah's Cold Fusion experiments?

      For me, a great example of what makes it easy to bash tech is the autonomous automobile. Huge potential but the deployment and promises leave a lot to be desired-I personally don't like autonomous cars turning into my lane when riding a motorcycle and would have loved to hear that's indeed what was happening so I could stay away.

      Maybe @Chris, our belief in science for the greater good is based on our experiences back before money was such a huge part of disease? Like polio, measles, or smallpox?

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