Amazon’s New Microwave Has Your Number
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Amazon probably wanted its latest new product presentation to be exciting. Instead, it scared me.
The products Amazon is rolling out are all based on its Alexa voice-assistant technology. They include new smart speakers, a subwoofer, a gadget to put Alexa in cars, a voice-activated microwave and even an Alexa-enabled wall clock. If you installed them all, you would essentially be bugging all of your private spaces. Privacy wasn’t mentioned even once during the presentation, which took place just a few months after an Amazon Echo in Portland recorded its owners’ private conversation and sent it to a random phone contact; it misinterpreted words in the conversation as a succession of commands.
That in itself doesn’t have to be scary: If you don’t want an error-prone listening device in your kitchen, bedroom or car, don’t buy one. What really worries me is that in the near future, I won’t be able to buy an appliance that won’t eavesdrop on me and send the information to an outside server at Amazon, Google or some other company.
The first product category in which I expect that to happen is wireless speakers — not the portable ones that use Bluetooth, but the Wi-Fi-enabled ones for the home, first sold by Santa Barbara-based Sonos in the mid-2000s. Sonos came to dominate the market, accounting for about 50 percent in 2014. The following year, Amazon started selling the Echo, a voice-activated smart speaker that introduced consumers to Alexa, and in 2016, Amazon’s speaker sales surpassed those of Sonos.
The market researcher Strategy Analytics predicts that “intelligent home speakers” — those with listening devices — will account for about 90 percent of all Wi-Fi speakers sold in 2022, compared with 42 percent in 2016. Sonos, as well as other Wi-Fi speaker makers such as Bose and Sony, now make voice-activated speakers, as do Google and Apple. It’s the hottest consumer tech around.
That can be seen as a legitimate victory for superior technology — after all, voice recognition adds useful features to the speaker if you’re the kind of person who talks to inanimate objects. The same features, however, could be had without the privacy and security flaws of the modern smart devices, which send the user’s commands (and whatever they interpret as commands) to the cloud.
Most consumers who willingly give up their privacy for the convenience of voice recognition don’t even realize the technology can work without opening up one’s home to round-the-clock eavesdropping, whether malicious or accidental. A small French company called Snips has been working for years on private-by-design voice recognition. Voice commands are processed on the end user’s device, making the data transfer unnecessary. The underlying artificial intelligence is trained without central servers, using the kind of cryptography that’s behind bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.
U.S. giants don’t bother with the creative safety precautions because they’re interested in vacuuming up as much customer data as possible, and they figure consumers will snap up their gadgets anyway, thanks mainly to their next-to-unlimited marketing resources.
Speakers could be just the beginning: Almost one third of U.S. consumers own them now, and their popularity could lead to the long-predicted demand explosion for the internet of things. The speaker is meant to serve as a hub for lots of connected devices in the home. That’s why Amazon is making Alexa-enabled microwaves and clocks. If connecting all the appliances to a network is easy, and Amazon is working to make it so, consumers are likely to yield to the temptation. It sounds so orderly and, well, smart.
If you’re like me and believe that putting an always-on eavesdropping device in your home is a red line, if you’ve turned off the voice assistant on your phone, if you worry about the amount of data leviathans like Google and Amazon are collecting about you, it’s time to buy the longest-lasting products without built-in voice recognition that you can find. The talking and listening microwaves and fridges are coming for us, and it’ll be harder every year to avoid them.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics and business. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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