Internet Connected Devices May Put Their Owners Behind Bars

Feel like no one ever really listens to you? Your gadgets do.

By Scott Canon, The Kansas City Star, MO / December 30, 2016
The Amazon Echo, a hands-free speaker you control with your voice that connects to the Alexa Voice Service. Shutterstock

(TNS) --Feel like no one ever really listens to you?


Your gadgets do. That may not always be a good thing.

Most recently, an Arkansas death investigation highlighted how the magic of Amazon’s Echo device — its ability to act on your voice commands — means it might have overheard conversations critical to a murder investigation.

That case could ultimately lasso Amazon’s cloud of remote computer storage into court fights. The results hold implications for the many ways technology’s romp toward ubiquity poses a growing threat to privacy.

It also acts as a reminder that buying a so-called smart speaker such as the Echo — or its chief competitor, Google Home — is like plugging Big Brother into your living room.

Those computerized sound systems are just the latest listeners to the party.

Your smartphone already mines mountains of personalized data (note how many apps seek access to your contacts, location, camera and microphone). The resulting cache of information creates a defining dilemma of the Digital Age.

The more bits about your life you share with your gadgets, the better help you’ll get from Siri, from your Fitbit, from your Google searches.

Yet in maximizing that functionality, you leave untold digital bread crumbs that could someday be used against you by an angry former lover, by some ransom-seeking East European hacker, by the cops.

“There’s always a gap between when people lose their privacy and when they realize they’ve lost it,” said Jay Stanley, a technology policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union. “When all kinds of exciting new services are being thrown at you, you lose track.”

Better listeners

The latest techno turn comes with galloping advances in voice recognition. In the mid-1990s, the best voice recognition software suffered error rates of about 95 percent. This fall, a team of Microsoft engineers published a paper documenting that robots hear better than you do. The researchers wrote that “our automated system establishes a new state-of-the-art, and edges past the human benchmark.”

Whether you’re calling out “Alexa” to your Amazon Echo, “Hey Siri” to your iPhone, “Hey Cortana” to your Microsoft desktop or “OK Google” to your Android device, you’ve summoned help not just from a particular gadget but from the corporate computer banks scattered around the globe.

Those commands “all involve a computer near you, listening to everything all the time, and looking for the magic activation phrase,” said Dan Wallach, a computer science professor at Rice University. “After that, they record everything they hear and send it to the cloud for recognition. It’s much easier to do high quality voice recognition in the cloud, where they’ve got sophisticated machine learning models.”

That means the scraps from your life get stored in computer servers connected to the internet. That puts them out of your control. Court cases have long held — although groups such as the ACLU contend the law needs updating — that police often don’t need warrants to access the files from a third party like they would to search your home.

Anybody with a Gmail account can get a quick taste of how just one corporation can store a fairly intimate portrait of a user. It can map out your location over time — how many times you went to church, or to a bar. It catalogs Web searches, the YouTube videos you watched, the music you listen to.

Users signed into that site will also find what the company calls “voice and audio.” It’s mostly clips a few seconds long. The majority come from deliberate “OK Google” voice queries to a phone seeking the score of a ballgame or ingredients to a recipe.

But others are random bits of sound from the user’s life, where the phone misheard random syllables as a call to attention.

“If the police could order Google or one of these other vendors to deliberately make recordings and upload them, on demand, then you’ve got an audio bug — a surveillance device — sitting in your pocket or on your desk,” Wallach said.

Electronic witness

In the Arkansas case, the cops didn’t trigger Echo to listen. But they want to know what it might have picked up.

They showed up after a resident, James A. Bates, called 911 and said that he’d awakened after a night of drinking and found the body of his friend Victor Collins floating in the backyard hot tub. Police ultimately launched a homicide investigation and suspected some clues might have been inadvertently gathered by the “Internet of things” — gadgets such as a Nest smart thermostat, a smart water meter, a Honeywell alarm system and Bates’ Amazon Echo.

The Information reported this week that police pressed Amazon for help. They served a warrant to the online seller.

“The Amazon Echo device is constantly listening for the ‘wake’ command of ‘Alexa’ or ‘Amazon,’ and records any command, inquiry, or verbal gesture given after that point, or possibly at all times without the ‘wake word’ being issued, which is uploaded to’s servers at a remote location,” an affidavit with the warrant reads. “It is believed that these records are retained by and that they are evidence related to the case under investigation.”

So far, Amazon has refused to comply with the warrant.

“Amazon will not release customer information without a valid and binding legal demand properly served on us,” the company said in a statement. “Amazon objects to overbroad or otherwise inappropriate demands as a matter of course.”

Commands to the Echo are recorded in the device whenever it hears the words “Amazon” or “Alexa,” although they can be deleted later. The company says the device does not listen to other conversations, but any Echo owner has experienced random phrases that turn on the blue light to indicate it’s listening for instructions.

Law enforcement has increasingly leaned on digital archives to solve cases and arm prosecutors with evidence. Cellphone records not only log calls, they can pinpoint someone’s location at a specific time even when the device sits unused in a pocket or purse.

A computer forensic unit at the Kansas City FBI office increasingly looks to digital records in criminal investigations, said spokeswoman Bridget Patton.

“We live in a digital world and that all can come into play in conducting an investigation,” she said. “It’s more important all the time. We obtain that digital evidence lawfully.”

Wired to hear

The Arkansas Echo example is just one of the myriad ways internet-reliant devices collect snippets of our lives. The paranoid and privacy-sensitive among us can tweak the settings on their gadgets to limit that — at the expense of utility. A smartphone can’t steer you to the closest gas station, for instance, unless you let it know where you are.

“If you have not taken the time to check all your settings, you’re going to be tracked,” said Paul Stephens, the director of policy and advocacy for the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.

Phone apps often require access to various functions on users’ devices. Stephens noted that some flashlight apps ask for access to cameras and microphones “when there’s no way they need that just to turn on that light.”

Yet app makers are driven to mine data they can sell to marketers. He suggests simply going to a website of an airline or Facebook rather than downloading an app. It might be more cumbersome, but the move protects privacy.

The mere act of carrying a smartphone or outfitting your house with smart appliances can make people vulnerable to hackers. Google Glass, the failed project that perched an internet screen on users’ noses, was hacked to turn on its camera surreptitiously. That sort of vulnerability to online intruders is why so many people tape over their laptop’s camera.

“The situation is inherently double-edged,” said Alan Sherman, a professor of computer science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “There could be a legitimate reason why your toaster oven is connected to the internet. The manufacturer can track its performance and update the software to improve performance.”

But, he wonders, is it a worthwhile trade-off to get the perfect frozen pizza in return for more eyes peeking into your kitchen?

The question may be increasingly moot. The to-and-fro of information is increasingly built into more devices, from our cars to our home music systems. Rapid improvements in voice recognition drive the latest wave.

“People are saying these things are very cool and a little creepy, but mostly cool,” said Jim Barry, a spokesman for the Consumer Technology Association.

The Echo, he said, only accelerates the trend. Backed by the biggest seller of consumer goods in the world, Amazon’s gadget works well enough that people who resisted voice-activated devices are now warming to them.

“It’s got to be easy to use and do something you do frequently, like listen to music,” Barry said. “You’re only going to see more of this stuff.”

©2016 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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