Are Alexa, Your Phone And Laptop Lurking On You?

Jan 6, 2017

The hottest gadget this holiday season is getting attention it may not want.

Amazon's Echo is a voice- activated smart speaker that in a soothing – yet somewhat robotic way - plays music, shares the news and weather and answers even the most inane questions when anyone near the device says a key word - usually the name 'Alexa.'

But there's something else the device does. The small cylindrical tower’s microphone collects and stores a lot of data on you and others nearby. And that's why it's the focus of a legal battle in Arkansas, where police are asking Amazon to share recordings from a device they seized at a murder scene.

Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies said she’s surprised this challenge over personal information took so long.

“We should have been worried a long time ago,” she said. “And privacy advocates have been worried.”

Almost all of our devices, our phones, our cars, computers, include listening microphones that have the ability to listen to us and watch us, McBride said. Over the last year there have been several moments where very powerful people who know a lot about technology have been warning us, including FBI Director James Comey, who in September said people should cover their webcams.

“If you're not doing anything criminal, what you should be worried about is who is gathering information about you, what that information implies, is that fair and accurate and how can it be used against you,” she said.

Whether it’s your car insurance company asking to put a tracking device in your car, or health insurance providers rewarding you for connecting to your Fitbit or your Garmin, McBride said it’s not hard to imagine this information could be misused. So, she offers concerned consumers some advice:

·         Read the FBI director's warning from last September and decide how concerned you are

·         Consider buying a shell for your laptop computer that includes a built-in cover for your camera and microphone jack

·         Go into your phone's settings, click privacy and look at all the apps that are allowed to use you microphone, your camera and location services. Set them to “never” or “while the app is on.”