Within the first five minutes of Amazon’s product launch event last week, hardware chief David Limp’s voice took on a serious tone. As he walked across a stage at the company’s Seattle headquarters, a Twitter message appeared on a large screen behind him, from a customer worried about the tech giant’s voice assistant. “@AmazonHelp,” it read, “I have privacy concerns surrounding your Alexa device.”
Limp addressed the hundreds of reporters and analysts at the event. “I know many of you have written headlines about this over the past year,” he said. “And we care about this.”
Then Limp demonstrated how seriously Amazon is taking privacy, unveiling a host of new features that give consumers more control over Alexa privacy settings. Those features include auto-deleting recordings, preventing Alexa from turning on at unintended times and more privacy controls for Ring home-security cameras.
Limp’s introduction to Amazon’s celebration of its product ingenuity veered away from the typical script of tech presentations, which are often either brand rah-rah sessions or extended gadget advertisements, or both.
The choice to deviate from Big Tech’s playbook underscores how serious a problem privacy issues have become for voice assistants, particularly Amazon’s Alexa. The list of woes includes news that human reviewers listened to users’ private conversations, a common practice to train digital assistants but one many customers didn’t know about. Amazon’s child-friendly Echo Dot Kids Edition smart speaker has also worried parents over how it uses and stores kids’ data.
So far, there’s little indication these worries have weighed on sales of voice-activated devices like Amazon’s Alexa-powered Echo line. But Limp and his team seemed to understand that if the problems fester, they could erode consumer trust. So rather than avoid the unpleasant conversation, Amazon opted to address it publicly. Now it’ll be up to consumers to decide whether the giant e-retailer has done enough.
Gaining that trust is crucial for Amazon’s plans. At the event, the company asked consumers to invite Alexa deeper into their lives. Amazon wants Alexa with us all the time, rolling out on-the-go products like the Echo Frames smart glasses, Echo Loop ring and Echo Buds wireless earbuds. If Alexa is with us everywhere, privacy considerations are even more important.
“I think they addressed the elephant in the room,” said Carolina Milanesi, an analyst at Creative Strategies, who attended the launch. “Not talking about it, I think, would have seemed weird, especially when you’re giving us more devices, they’re doing more things in the home and really trying to continue to cement our relationship with Alexa.”
Of course, Alexa isn’t the only digital assistant to face privacy concerns. This year, smart-speaker customers learned that human reviewers were listening to recordings from just about every major voice assistant, including Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Google’s Assistant and Microsoft’s Cortana.
The monitoring is necessary to develop these assistants, and only a small fraction of recordings are reviewed. Still, Amazon and other tech giants were criticized for failing to be more transparent about the process, especially when some of the recordings that were reviewed included sensitive audio, such as doctor-patient conversations and people having sex. In one case, a contractor for Google leaked more than a thousand customer recordings to a Belgium-based news service.
In response, Amazon bolstered its privacy settings and set new restrictions on its human reviews. So did Google, Microsoft and Apple.
Along with the new auto-delete feature, Limp introduced the ability for customers to say to their Echo speakers, “Alexa, tell me what you heard” and “Alexa, why did you do that?” These queries are meant to increase transparency around what Alexa is listening to and why it responds in certain ways.
The company also created the new Alexa Communications for Kids to let parents pick which contacts their kids are allowed to talk to on the Echo Dot Kids Edition.
Those features follow work from earlier this year. Amazon last month started letting customers opt out of human reviews if they wished. The company in May created an Alexa privacy hub on its website and it lets users erase their recordings by saying, “Alexa, delete everything I said today.” Amazon’s two newest Echo Show smart displays, including the Echo Show 8 introduced at last week’s event, have privacy shutters for their cameras……..Read More>>