Alexa, Amazon’s WiFi-enabled voice-controlled hub now offers voice calling and messaging to users — as long as they’re willing to turn over their contacts and put up with some pretty serious privacy concerns.
The newest upgrade to Amazon’s AI service, which runs off of Echo and Echo Dot devices as well as smartphone apps, lets you make calls or send audio messages to other people with the technology, bypassing phones, SMS, Facebook, email, WhatsApp, and a slew of other platforms offering the same technology.
Like with most of those competitors, it’s totally free, so long as you’re already paying for internet service, and works with any and every device in your home. Except, as we’ve mentioned before, Alexa has some personal privacy concerns attached to its features.
We’re not damning the device — in fact there’s one plugged in just a few feet away from us right now — but with increased power and ability, it’s important to recognize the dangers posed by an always-on Device.
A few months ago, for instance, an Alexa device was subpoenaed in relation to a murder case to see if it recorded any useful information. Because it’s always on, it’s technically listening even when it’s not receiving commands, meaning that, if hacked, it’s potentially a bugging device that you’re paying to have in your home.
So you may not necessarily want it having a call log among friends and family. And you may want to be careful in setting up features for calling and messaging, and avoid “Drop In.”
“Drop In” is a particularly troubling feature that allows you to give someone else permission to, yes, drop in via your Echo device and just start talking to you, without you first having to answer a call. Sure this might be a great way to tell kids that dinner is ready, or soothe your paranoia about an elderly relative or child left alone for extended periods of time, but outside of something easily replaced by phone calls (or just yelling) it’s a feature ripe for misuse.
Keep in mind also that Amazon recently launched a camera add-on for its Alexa services, and while that can be manually turned off, you’re giving an awful lot of freedom to a microphone and camera in your home office, or your bedroom.
Let’s just follow the paranoia to its logical conclusion for a moment. Chances are if you have Alexa you’re also a Prime member, so if you went all the way with Amazon right now, you’d give them your personal information, contacts, credit card numbers, purchasing history, and a camera and microphone that will record you. How does that make you feel?
If you’re as freaked out by all of this as you should be, there’s no reason to go cover your Echo with tinfoil. For the moment, these features are not enabled automatically on existing or new devices. You need to download the Alexa app, and enable these features manually.
Amazon sees this as a great tool for connecting people, and the majority of users will probably feel the same way as privacy continues to be eroded by technology. But at least for the time being, we’re going to keep one more device in our home from ringing when people want our attention.