Editor’s Note: Kara Alaimo, an assistant professor of public relations at Hofstra University, is the author of “Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication.” She was spokeswoman for international affairs in the Treasury Department during the Obama administration. Follow her on Twitter @karaalaimo. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own.
Amazon recently acknowledged that it employs people to listen to an “extremely small number of interactions from a random set of customers” who have the company’s virtual assistant, Alexa, on devices such as smart speakers in their homes. The company says it does so in order to improve the accuracy of the software’s future responses. The idea of other people listening in to what we say in the privacy of our homes is creepy enough. But the real danger lies in the potential for Amazon to aggregate all that information and use it to try to manipulate us — or for others to get their hands on it and use it against us.
Conversations that Amazon records can of course tell the company a lot about us. For example, the questions we ask and directions we give Alexa — like “what’s the weather?” or “play jazz music” — can indicate a great deal about what we like and care about. Then that information could be combined with data about what we buy on the site and the times of day we shop to get to know even more about us. It could recognize, for example, that a person buys certain products linked to being tired or lonely at a particular time of day.
The types of things we do with Alexa can also be extrapolated to make predictions about us that are often eerily accurate.
Whistleblower Christopher Wylie, former staffer for Cambridge Analytica — the consulting firm that worked on President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and allegedly improperly accessed data from Facebook (Cambridge Analytica has denied the allegation) — has noted that our choices of music and clothing are key clues to our political beliefs. Do you buy Wrangler jeans? If so, your political beliefs are likely conservative, according to Wylie. A recent working study by economists at the University of Chicago also found that our purchases can predict our race, gender and education with an accuracy of as much as 90%.
Amazon could use this data to strategically engineer our search results on the site, or adjust when it sends us marketing emails and what they contain based on what the company has learned about our preferences. While it can sometimes be helpful to get personalized product recommendations for items Amazon’s algorithm realizes might be useful to us, users might also be manipulated into buying products they otherwise wouldn’t have if the company pinpoints and tries to take advantage of their weaknesses.
There’s also nothing to stop Amazon from selling our information to third parties — like political candidates — who could try to target and appeal to us.
Even if companies like Amazon pledge to protect our privacy, they could always change their minds, which is what Facebook retroactively did in 2010. The social media giant made the pages that we “liked” public, even though it had previously told users that such information would only be shared with friends. This caused the Federal Trade Commission to get involved and the company ultimately made changes to allow users to determine who sees the pages they connect with.
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Even if we trust Amazon not to do any of this, the data could be hacked by malicious actors like a foreign government. That’s especially frightening because Amazon is clearly recording some very sensitive information. For example, it’s not uncommon for an Alexa-using smart speaker to record utterances made within range of the device even when a user is not trying to interact with the personal assistant. We don’t know how often that is happening. And the staffers listening in on conversations with Alexa believe they heard at least one sexual assault. Given that hackers have allegedly managed to breach the phone of Amazon’s chief executive and even the CIA, no one should feel confident that this won’t happen.
Currently, users can opt out of having our voice recordings used by Amazon. But most people probably don’t understand the potential for their seemingly innocuous conversations to be used against them in very disturbing ways. A better option would be for Amazon not to collect this data at all. The company could store our data on our individual devices so it isn’t transmitted to Amazon. Of course, it would be harder for Amazon to improve its technology if it didn’t understand what people were asking Alexa and how the speaker was responding. But there are plenty of other ways that the company could learn this information — such as by sending users voluntary surveys and conducting exercises in their offices in which they observe people interacting with Alexa.
The scary thing isn’t just that Amazon is listening in on our homes. It’s that it is gathering so much data about us that it is increasingly able to get into our minds — and we can’t be certain that these insights won’t be used for nefarious purposes.