Amazon Echo raises questions over consumer privacy

Maddie Boone, Senior Writer

Since the birth of the Alexa, the Amazon voice assistant used in millions of smart technologies, many have questioned its capabilities as a spy device. The Amazon Echo device that is used in households around the world contains a microphone. This raises the obvious question: is someone listening to us?

When Alexa is prompted, she responds by using a “skill“ to offer up a reply. Intrigued by the fact that Amazon had never said how long Alexa listens following a command or question, researchers at the security testing firm Checkmarx began poking around. They found a mistake in the software that allowed Alexa to listen for far longer than she was being prompted. This flaw would allow malicious developers, if they so desired, to listen in on Alexa owners.

“As far as we could tell, there was no limit. As long as you don’t tell it to stop, it wouldn’t,” Checkmarx director of product marketing Amit Ashbel said.

Employees at Checkmarx found that they could develop a new Alexa skill that would make her continue to listen utilizing her “re-prompt” feature. When Alexa does not hear a question properly she asks for the user to repeat themselves while continuing to listen.

Checkmarx researchers discovered a certain code could instruct Alexa to remain listening even if the command was understood. Researchers further realized that there was a way they could mute Alexa asking for the command to be repeated so she would be quiet and continue to listen in while the user was left unaware.

While Checkmarx’s report was just recently released to the public, Amazon had resolved this issue earlier this month. After Amazon made these changes, Checkmarx confirmed that the hacks they had found were now impossible, as Amazon corrected specific features and altogether removed Alexa’s ability to silence re-prompts.

To the many millions using this device it is no less comforting knowing that they easily could’ve been listened in on for long periods of time.

“Customer trust is important to us and we take security and privacy seriously,” a recent Amazon statement said. However, no matter what companies say, it is our individual duty to protect our own privacy.

At the end of the day we need to be careful about what new technology we trust because guarding our privacy is our right as citizens. Just a week or two ago I found a photo of Mark Zuckerberg with tape over his laptop camera. Even he knows such problems exist in our world of advanced technology.

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