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Amazon, get ready for all the scrutiny you never wanted

Android dudes
Android dudes (Image credit: Jerry Hildenbrand / Android Central)

Welcome to the big leagues, Amazon. After just three days of people being able to use Alexa Calling and Messaging on the Echos we already have, you've met the first of many public rebukings when it comes to user privacy. And there will probably be plenty more.

The internet loves it when the big guy makes a mistake.

Amazon has always been one of those companies that collects gigantic mountains of user data anywhere and everywhere it can; It was never really that much different from the Facebooks and Googles of the world in that regard. But because most people only think of Amazon as that place where you can buy the thing you really need and have it overnighted to the front door, it has escaped much of the outrage over how it treats that data. Most people never noticed how you would see fine-tuned recommendations from Amazon all over the web if you had an account, or if we did we didn't much care because seeing things you like is better than seeing ads for things you don't. But now things will be very different.

When you move from a device that's always listening to every word but is there to tell you the whether to buy a box of Tide to a full-fledged communication platform, the things you do get scrutinized much more closely. Things like not being able to block incoming calls made on your new platform seem more important than building a customer profile that tells Amazon when your kid's birthday is because that's information you let Amazon have. In 15 years, when our kids have their own Amazon accounts and there's a full history of all the things they liked since they were babies, we might freak out a little bit, but right here and right now we can see that Amazon lets "anyone into our living room" through Alexa Calling. When the Echo Show finds its way into everyone's house and a face gets attached to those calls, there will be more freakouts. Promise.

I'm not discounting the attention this is getting. Yes, this is no different than when we used to have real paper phone books with our names and addresses in them, but Ma Bell gave us an opt out. Amazon needs to do the same and add a "block unknown caller" setting. I'll bet it is doing it right now and we'll see it soon. And to be perfectly honest, having any company get more attention when it comes to privacy is a good thing because it makes everyone pay closer attention. Facebook, Google, Microsoft and every other company that routinely collects copious amounts of data and offers services that use it are paying attention. They don't want to be the next Twitter target.

Editor's note: An Amazon spokesperson confirmed via email that a block feature "will be available in the coming weeks. We know this is important to customers, and we're working on it.

We need to look at everything Amazon does and make our own decisions before we call Mom on her new Echo Show.

On our side, we need to take a look at everything about Alexa Calling instead of just focusing on the new parts. It undoubtedly is connected to the other data Amazon has always collected, and we need to make an informed decision about trusting Amazon with our voices and faces. It's not that what it is doing is inherently bad; data collection can make a good service better. The value of what it's offering may very well be worth the information we have to give them. But that's something we should have already been doing when we asked Alexa to turn on our lights and remind us to buy a Mother's Day gift.

Jerry Hildenbrand
Jerry Hildenbrand

Jerry is an amateur woodworker and struggling shade tree mechanic. There's nothing he can't take apart, but many things he can't reassemble. You'll find him writing and speaking his loud opinion on Android Central and occasionally on Twitter.

  • These device's don't record everything they can hear, that is just not how they work. It would also generate massive amounts of data and network traffic at Amazon if they tried doing that. These devices contain hardware that is always listening for a keyword, the wake word. In this case "Alexa". After the local hardware hears the wake word it streams the audio up to Amazon until the speaker pauses. So only the short phrase of what you say immediately after the hot word gets transmitted. You can put a network sniffer on the device and verify this. Think of it like a lock and key on a door. The lock just sits there waiting for a key. It is not recording anything. After you insert the key the door opens and recording starts, when you close the door (ie pause speaking) the door closes (recording stops) and the lock starts waiting for a key again. If you put wrong keys into the lock (ie talk and not say 'Alexa') the lock just sits there and does nothing, it does not record the invalid keys your are inserting. And stop being so paranoid about the camera. Your phone has a camera and most people have no problem bringing their phone into the bathroom which is far more invasive that these Amazon devices.
  • I'm sure Jerry has a thorough understanding of how always listening works. That's not the feature he was referencing in the article anyway.
  • I agree. It's no different to having "OK Google" on your phone. I am pretty sure Google collects more information about me than Amazon does. In fact Google Now cards and YouTube recommendations suggest this is the case.
  • Amazon collects as much data as Google. It's just different data. Experiment: Install Amazon app on your phone and sign in. Look at something you have never looked at before in the Amazon app. Something you have zero interest in. Browse products recommended to you by Amazon for 15 minutes or so. Uninstall Amazon app. Get on ANY other device that has a web browser. Visit Amazon and sign in. Browse the web and see what ads you get. Amazon has a huge profile on every single person with an account. They collect everything they can — where you visit on the web, what you click, what you buy, how you buy it, when you bought it, how many other products associated with it that you have bought in the past, and more. They even capture data about how fast you move your PC mouse and how long you hover over a link before you click or don't click. They use this data to show you things you will likely buy instead of things you won't. And that's fine. So far they haven't been terrible with how they maintain all the data, and they don;t hide what they are doing (you agreed when you signed up). I use Amazon knowing what they collect because the service is worth it to me. If they change their privacy policy or data collection practices, I'll reconsider.
  • I agree with what you say about Amazon. However I still think Google is worse. When I park up at the local shopping centre I get a notification telling me where I am and what shops are there. When I sit down for a meal in a restaurant I get a notification telling me where I am, links to reviews of the restaurant and photo opportunity to posts selfie on the restaurants facebook page. And this is not from facebook, I have never used facebook.
  • If a microphone is "listening" then it is recording. The recording may not get sent anywhere or saved, but it IS recording everything around it, that's how microphones work.
  • Microphones have no ability to record by themselves. That's literally not how they work lol.
  • I said if it's "listening", if it's not plugged in or turned on it isn't "listening". I love a bit of sarcasm, but you need to try harder!
  • They do record everything they hear. It's simple to see by emulating the service on a PC. They have to record it to analyze it, then decide whether to retain and send it off or delete it. In any case, I said always listening, not always recording.
  • I'm one of those who tries stuff right away, so I have played with it. The calling and messaging features are interesting and may prove useful. I am looking forward to the updates which will make it a bit more controllable. I'd actually be happier with an explicit 'allow' than a block feature. I hope they consider both options. I understand you actually have to call them to turn the feature off at this point. That needs to change as well.
  • I'd like to give an Amen, a huge +1 or however we are agreeing to comments now. When did it become common place to make it mandatory to opt-out of something we didn't want to be a part of in the 1st place? Whatever happened to asking if we wanted to opt-in instead? And if we said no we weren't prompted again and again and again till we gave into the constant nagging just to get it to stop. No, I don't want my personal information searchable by anyone on every service so they can find me. If I wanted to be in touch with them I wouldn't make them have to search for it. I'd give it to them. When I take a photo I just want it on my phone, not automatically backed up to your cloud service too. I'll take the risk if it gets lost but thanks for asking. Oh, wait ...... you didn't ask. This type of technology should be opt-in or "allow"ed only.
  • Like it or not, you likely opted in when you bought the thing. Could be wrong but I'd bet they put something about future functionality in that huge EULA none of us ever read.
  • Welcome to 2017 Jerry, where have you been? Privacy concerns are nothing new, whether it be the Echo, Google Home, Siri or anything else. How many times have you went to Google to search something and it's almost like your mind was read. This is how it is now. I'm a person who doesn't really care if Amazon knows I order Tide detergent, or if Google knows what adds to show me. Speaking of privacy, I see revelant ads when I visit this site. So you're the pot calling the kettle black. You must be invading my privacy somehow, right? So get over it or step away from technology. It's only going to get worse from here. My guess is when something needs to be kept private, people will take precaution. Otherwise, thanks for making my life easier technology.
  • So aggressive. I read Jerry's comments and he doesn't seem confused about how the world works. He's reporting on how the world is reacting to Amazon in a new way.
    Why do you seem so angry? Did an inquisitive or informative person treat you poorly?
  • Jesus. Relax.
  • These concerns are new for Amazon. The uproar about not being able to block calls and cries of "mah privacies!!!!!" on social media from people who never cared that Amazon collected all their data sort of proves it. You see relevant ads because Google and Amazon have built a profile on you, and they decide what information si displayed in an ad block based on your profile. Amazon in particular tracks you on every single web page if you've visited with the browser you're using (even if you never signed in). And I won't be getting over telling people that they need to care. Or be better informed and not rant on website comments.
  • I do believe that Jerry is the most informed and careful about privacy at Android Central. So yes, why the hostility?
  • I think people miss the extent of the snooping that occurs these days. Smart TV watching you in your lounge room and listening to your comments... I like to read Jerry's take. His articles give me an idea of the extent of the snooping.
    It's a trade-off in this brave new world. Smart cars recording your trips, our aeroplanes will soon have mandatory tracking devices that are online so ATC always has your location even out in the remote outback. This is great if you crash the plane, so once again, you have the trade-off..
  • This is reminiscent of the rants from the days when device encryption was being questioned and when fingerprint scanners were just hitting Android devices. The same cries for privacy and security, the same urgency to pin corporations for lax security and building databases that profile us all. Funny how we all now have device encryption that the government can crack by spending our tax dollars and I'm sure hackers can crack too. We have fingerprint scanners that are convenient but which we can be forced to use against our will to gain access to our phones. And Facebook, Google, and Amazon have billions of users freely handing out their personal information, not just to the company but to thousands of people who follow or are somehow acquainted with them. Sure I am glad that I don’t have to log to Facebook to access the Internet yet... thank you Amazon for that, but there comes a time when when I wake up and realize that I am so paranoid about my personal information that I have to enter my fingerprint to let my own kids use my phone. My own wife doesn't know any of my passwords, and I find myself starting at a phone screen over the 55" because I don't think the show in watching is appropriate for kids or my wife might not like it. It just seems like in our quest for privacy we are filling our lives with unnecessary secrets.
  • Meh. Until Gerry's avatar shows him wearing an aluminum foil hat, I'll trust almost anything he posts to be true enough and that he is not crazy.
  • Still it's pretty nice to see Jerry actually taking security a little bit more seriously. He's pooh-poohed it for several years and taken the position that surrendering your privacy is just one of the prices you pay for living in a connected world. One has to wonder why Amazon waited until there's a phone in every pocket to put a calling device in every room. Are we too lazy to reach for our pockets these days.
  • It's still one of the prices you have to pay to live in a connected world. My stance hasn't changed — if the service is worth your payment in data, have at it. Just know that you are paying.
  • I'm waiting for the first Amazon Look hack and the following posts of pictures and video ;).
    Seriously though, I'm fine with them knowing stuff about me... to a point. Case in point is OK Google voice settings, which I've always set to be on, but only when the screen is on. And if I'm on a date, I turn it off. Of course, what Google and Amazon hear is nowhere near as accessible to the public as what is posted on facebook...
  • If you put holes in the walls of your house, people that are interested will look in.