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Privacy and security: asking Amazon Alexa if your data is secure

With more people plugging in to smart speakers like Amazon Echos, ABC 57 set out to learn how secure your data really is with this new technology.

ABC 57's Jess Arnold met up with the Kuntz family to find out how Amazon Alexa factors into their daily lives.

“It’s changed the way we do stuff around the house," said 13-year-old, Quinten Ruff.

That's likely because they have a smart house.

“When I was in bed, if I had to go get my water and forget to turn off my light switch, I’d have to get out of bed and turn it off, and now I can just say, 'hey Alexa!'" said 10-year-old Jacob Kuntz.

His dad, Joshua Kuntz, has wired that technology into every room after getting the beta version of Amazon Echo four years ago.

“It’s made us a little lazier. It makes it easy, right?” said Joshua, laughing.

“So you’ve made your life easier, but then...the concern that’s immerged is in terms of privacy, you’ve basically placed multiple microphones now throughout your house,... you’ve also exposed what’s going on potentially to Amazon," said Aaron Striegel, a Computer Science and Engineering Professor at Notre Dame.

Hackers could also become a problem.

As someone who teaches the future developers of these devices, Professor Striegel says he's had to adapt significantly to the constantly changing technology landscape.

“In terms of when I go to build a smart device, am I really thinking through all the implications or how it might change things not just potentially for the good but also could it be used for perhaps nefarious or ulterior motives that perhaps would not be desirable for society," he said.

“We’ve seen a lot of people in the news for the last two years who are in the news for the wrong reasons," said Bob Tadevich, the President of Granger's Network Solutions Incorporated.

Some names that likely come to mind are Equifax, Uber, Virgin America, Strava, and Deloitte.

The challenge really is two-fold for network professionals everywhere. The challenge is how can I get all of these devices on the network and keep up with demand, anymore, there’s IP lighting IP refrigerators, IP everything. Everything is connected to the internet...Keeping up with them is the first challenge and then the second challenge is, how do we do it securely?” said Tadevich.

For many companies in the area, that's where his business comes in.

“We see what’s happening maybe 6 to 12 months early...The manufacturers, they’ll talk to us and say hey, this is where we think technology’s going...How does that play in your neck of the woods?” said Bob.

While his clients typically aren't families like the Kuntzes, he says the security risk could connect the two sooner than you'd think.

“For me it’s a matter of market share. I hate to say it, but it’s financial. Hackers don’t usually take the time or effort to hack into a device if there’s three of them in the world, there’s no payoff. The amazon echo. How many are there?” he said.

Amazon doesn't release specific numbers of devices sold, but they did say the following in a December 2017 press release:

"Amazon Devices…had its best holiday yet, with tens of millions of Alexa-enabled devices sold worldwide."

“Oo, okay now there’s a large target audience. Is it worth writing this malware? Is it worth writing what I need to compromise the device, and now I can get into a lot of laptops, not just for home use, but potentially for work use," said Tadevich. “The more devices that get sold, the more real the threat becomes.”

Josh Kuntz agrees that's a legitimate concern.

"But if someone hacks into my Alexa...they’re not really getting anymore personally identifiable information than is on any other service provider that we have out there...So I think in our case the benefits, the convenience, and just the experience is worth the risks. The downsides of someone being able to listen into my house are not all that great," said Kuntz.

“I know some people are worried that you know it’s always listening to you. I just don’t think we have that much interesting stuff to say, so if it wants to listen, it doesn’t bother me any, and you have to say the wake word usually to get it to respond," said Josh's wife, Alicia.

Not to mention, Amazon says it devotes full teams to customer security with a slew of steps to ensure users's safety, including the following:

  • Disallowing third party application installation on the device
  • Rigorous security reviews
  • Secure software development requirements
  • Encryption of communication between Echo, the Alexa App and Amazon servers.”

“Amazon and google, they’ve got excellent engineers, and they will try to stay one step ahead of the hackers, and as hackers come out with a way to compromise their product, they’ll come out with a way to patch it so they can’t do it anymore, and that’s great, but the hackers know how to get into the old version of software, and if you didn’t upgrade to the new version of software, you’re a sitting duck," said Bob.

“I stay pretty up to date on it. I work in technology, and when I hear of new advances, I go check them out," said Josh.

Some folks are even eyeing smart speaker technology to solve crimes.

In 2017, Amazon received 1,618 subpoena requests and fully responded to 685.

That year, they also received 229 search warrant requests and fully responded to 102.

“They would like to catch the bad guys, and they would like to have that evidence, but then the balance is personal privacy and freedom, and if I’m in my home, what are my reasonable expectations of being monitored, and most of us would assume that if I’m in my house, nobody should be listening in unless I choose to let them listen in," said Professor Striegel.

Back in 2016, an Arkansas prosecutor requested Echo recordings from a murder case defendant, hoping it was listening when he alleged the suspect killed his friend.

Amazon initially rebuffed the request, saying in part, "Amazon objects to overbroad or otherwise inappropriate demands.”

They only handed over the data when the suspect OK-ed it.

His case was eventually dismissed.

For crimes, colleges, companies, or just calendars, it's clear that smart speaker technology could change the way we live our lives every day.

“The fact that they can listen to every conversation in my home, yes that does concern me," said Tadevich.

Others are excited.

“It feels really nice to be like the first on the mayflower into this technological age," said Quinten.

Amazon Alexa users, you have access to your history on these devices and can delete any recordings you want.

Check out this quick slideshow to find out how.

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