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Our devices are listening to us all the time -- but do we care?

Once a thing dreamed about in sci-fi, voice-controlled computers are a reality. But consumers may not realize the price they pay for living in the future.

Donna Tam Staff Writer / News
Donna Tam covers Amazon and other fun stuff for CNET News. She is a San Francisco native who enjoys feasting, merrymaking, checking her Gmail and reading her Kindle.
Nick Statt Former Staff Reporter / News
Nick Statt was a staff reporter for CNET News covering Microsoft, gaming, and technology you sometimes wear. He previously wrote for ReadWrite, was a news associate at the social-news app Flipboard, and his work has appeared in Popular Science and Newsweek. When not complaining about Bay Area bagel quality, he can be found spending a questionable amount of time contemplating his relationship with video games.
Donna Tam
Nick Statt
5 min read

The new Amazon Echo is ready to listen to you. Are you ready? Amazon

Go to the website for Amazon's newest product, a virtual assistant, and you'll read about many features: built-in speakers, seven microphones for capturing your voice, and a brain in the cloud that will get smarter over time as it listens to you.

But one thing is missing: privacy.

The product page for the cylindrical device, called Echo, doesn't say how it protects your information as you ask it questions and give it commands. What you learn instead is how it's always listening intently so it can update your grocery list, tell you about the weather or just play a song.

"Amazon Echo. A bit sci-fi, a bit creepy, but I'd totally use one in my classroom," said Marty Elkins, a teacher and self-described tech enthusiast from Ontario, Canada.

Elkins, who teaches sixth and seventh grade, sees a future in which his students can use a device like Echo to look up facts with ease, just as you would use a dictionary to look up a word, or use Google to search for a historic fact. Echo would save "wasted time," he said, adding he already uses Apple's Siri assistant in the classroom for the same reason.

Of course, this convenience means Amazon will receive information on him, know what he and his students were curious about and, possibly, find a way to use that information to better sell him things. But like many other consumers, Elkins says it's a price he's willing to pay.

The technology industry is increasingly asking consumers to make a choice that treads the line between cool and creepy, as companies prompt us to trade our personal information in exchange for convenience and services.

Your smartphone has a GPS chip in it that helps you to find a local restaurant, but it also leaves a record of where you snapped that selfie. Your laptop has a camera on it that lets you Skype with your grandchildren -- and potentially be spied on. Now new technologies like Echo and hands-free versions of Siri and Google are activating microphones at all hours so they can be at your beck and call.

Apple's Siri pitches itself as somewhere between a secretary and an encyclopedia. CNET

Don't worry, there's a way out: These technologies can be turned off.

But as consumers make the tradeoff, they're shrinking the spaces in which they're not being watched or listened to.

"Before, you had to break into someone's house to see what they're doing," said Andrew Sudbury, co-founder and CTO of Abine, a company that makes online consumer privacy tools. "We've dramatically increased the access to our personal lives."

Companies say that the risks are worth the gains and that they can be trusted. Amazon keeps all the information Echo gathers securely protected in its servers, a company spokeswoman said -- any recordings it makes are "tied to your account to allow the service to be personalized for each user."

Asleep, but listening

Amazon announced Echo last week. It's a stationary tower activated by voice commands or through an accompanying mobile app and available only to those who sign up on a waiting list. It costs $199, or $99 if you're a subscriber to Amazon's annual Prime service. It will be available in "coming weeks," according to Amazon.

Echo's microphones aren't always broadcasting to the Internet. According to Amazon's frequently asked questions page, Echo only starts recording and connecting to the Internet if you utter a "wake" word, like "Alexa" or "Amazon."

Echo listens for the word using a voice recognition process that keeps data stored only on the device, Amazon said. When Echo does send information to the cloud, a ring positioned at the top of the device lights up. You can manually turn the microphone off, and you can delete any audio Amazon has stored. But the company warns that "may degrade your experience."

Google and Apple offer similar systems for their respective Android and iOS-powered devices, using "OK, Google" and "Hey Siri" to wake up their gadgets. Microsoft's Xbox One video game console responds to a myriad of commands that begin with you saying, "Xbox."

As with Amazon's Echo, Apple's Siri doesn't transmit any recordings to the Internet when it's idly waiting for a request. When commands are made, they're transmitted to the Internet, but with safeguards in place to protect the identity of the user. For instance, when Siri is turned on, your iPhone or iPad creates random identifiers so the servers don't know it's you making the request. Google's voice assistant service works largely the same way.

Always getting smarter

Jeremy Gillula, a staff technologist for the privacy watchdog Electronic Frontier Foundation, said consumers should be concerned even if their devices aren't recording us all the time.

"With enough data, Amazon can put together a lot of the pieces of information that you may not realize that you're giving them," Gillula said. For example, if Echo can recognize different voice patterns, it may be able to tell how many different people talk to it, and by extension how many people likely live in your house. Or, if you ask about the weather in a certain place, that could tip off Amazon that you're headed there.

Gillula's fears are actually part of what the technology industry is selling. Amazon said Echo will eventually do more than merely answer questions and update grocery lists. If Echo can understand the reason behind why you're asking for something, it may eventually be able to guess what products you need before you say it.

"Always getting smarter," reads the product page. "The more you use Echo, the more it adapts to your speech patterns, vocabulary, and personal preferences."

School teacher Elkins understands companies ultimately want to make more money off him using his data. But he's OK with it, as long as he gets something in return. Not everyone will feel the same way, which is why you should know who's listening in and decide whether that makes you anxious or not.

"It's a tradeoff," Elkins added. "I'm willing to view Google ads in order to use Google for free, and I'm willing to allow Amazon to target me with ads if it means they're putting some [research and development] into pushing the boundaries for consumer tech."