‘Users have no idea’: Mozilla exec says Amazon Alexa recordings ‘shocked’ his family

Click to play video: 'Amazon staff can listen to private conversations through Alexa' Amazon staff can listen to private conversations through Alexa
WATCH: Amazon staff can listen to private conversations through Alexa – Apr 12, 2019

OTTAWA — A security executive for the internet browser company Mozilla says he was shocked by the recordings of his family that were collected and retained by Amazon’s popular Alexa voice-activated interactive speaker.

Alan Davidson, the vice-president of global policy, trust and security for the company that makes the Firefox browser, says the Amazon Echo device is a wonderful product but when he recently examined the online records for his family’s Echo, he found they included conversations among his young children.

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“I was shocked honestly and my family was shocked to see these recordings of our young children from years ago that are in the cloud and stored about us. It’s not to say that something was done wrong, or unlawfully,” Davidson said Wednesday in testimony before the international grand committee on big data, privacy and democracy. “But users have no idea — they have no idea this data is out there and they don’t know how it’s going to be used in the future either.”

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The committee, which includes politicians from Canada, Britain, and several other countries, is examining the role of internet giants in safeguarding privacy and democratic rights.

Davidson said internet companies need to give customers more “granular” consent options for how specific pieces of personal information are collected and used by high-tech companies.

Mark Ryland, the chief security officer for Amazon Web Services, testified Amazon makes it very clear that consent is part of the Alexa experience, and that customers can delete any collected data if they like.

“Alexa is listening for a key word — an ‘awake’ word — that alerts the system you want to interact with it in some fashion,” said Ryland. “There’s a light on the device that tells you it is active and subsequent sound in the room is then streamed to the cloud.”

That stream is then taken through a “language-processing system” that produces a text of the conversation, said Ryland.

“You can see a full list of what you’ve said; you can delete any one of those. Those will immediately get removed from the database,” he said.

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“I think it’s very clear, the consent is part of the experience.”

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The information the Alexa service does store “becomes part of your account information just like if you were buying books on our website and therefore could influence” other things the company might present to a customer, said Ryland.

The committee is in its third and final day of hearings of Parliament Hill.

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