Modern field guide to security and privacy

When Alexa is listening, what do you tell houseguests?

If you've plugged in an eavesdropping personal assistants such as the Amazon Echo Dot, are you obligated to warn visitors, 'Be careful what you say, Alexa is listening'?

Staff/Reuters
Etiquette experts are confounded by the Amazon Echo and similar voice assistants.

Earlier this week, Amazon unveiled its $50 internet-connected personal assistant "so you can add Alexa to any room in your home."

Alexa is the online giant's artificial-intelligence powered bot that listens to what you say and answers your commands and questions: What's the weather? How's traffic? Can you order me a large pepperoni pizza?

And the low priced Echo Dot, about the size of a hockey puck, means many more homes will soon have on-command digital listening devices that eavesdrop on – and store – family conversations, holiday celebrations, and even off-color comments (and also bickering siblings or quarreling spouses).

Sure, it has its conveniences and Star Trek-like appeal and maybe you're OK with potential privacy implications. But what happens if your houseguests aren't? What if your friends think your robot assistant is creepy? Maybe your in-laws worry about the device's Orwellian implications, or your babysitter is concerned about his privacy.

So, what are the manners when it comes to connected homes? Are we approaching a time when we'll warn guests, "Be careful what you say, Alexa is listening."

Trevor Hughes, chief executive of the International Association of Privacy Professionals (IAPP), says that moment is fast approaching.

"We don’t have the social norms for someone to say, 'Oh hey, I have my Amazon Echo on, just so you know.' That’s not happening," says Mr. Hughes. "Society will have to decide, what are the right norms? What are the right ways to set the dials so we can maintain privacy and also enjoy these new technologies? We can foresee that there will be flash points, but they haven’t happened yet."

The Echo Dot, the smaller version of the higher-priced Echo that is also available in Europe, is just the latest gadget to come from a tech industry rush to market voice-controlled assistants. Google has announced Home, and Apple is reportedly developing its own internet-connected speaker capable of working with the voice assistant Siri.

Like many of the personal assistants on the market, the Echo Dot is activated by a wake-up word, and the device spends all day listening for customers to utter that phrase. From there, the Echo streams whatever immediately followed the wake word to the cloud.

It's possible to turn the Echo's microphone off, but the type of information the Echo collects and how that information is used remains unclear. (Amazon did not return request for comment on this story.) 

This confusion isn't exclusive to devices such as Echo. Anything connected to the internet and equipped with a microphone poses quandaries of etiquette. Consider connected toys such as the talking Barbie doll that records and stores its conversations with children. 

Should parents warn their child's playmates that the dolls could be listening in? 

Society has come to accept some basic manners when it comes to using tech. It’s rude to answer the phone while someone is talking to you, talk loudly on phones in restaurants, or to take their picture without asking for their permission.

"The etiquette for technology use is evolving," said Patricia Napier-Fitzpatrick, founder and president of the Etiquette School of New York. 

When asked how privacy-conscious guests should deal with friends and family with personal assistants, she said, just ask them to turn it off.

"Just ask nicely – don’t demand, but ask nicely, especially because it might not have occurred to the host that it might have bothered anyone," she said.

But, revealing the uncharted nature of these kinds of questions, she said in an email follow-up that the best scenario would be for the host to ask what their guests want.

"That’s what rules of manners are based upon," she said, "what makes sense for everyone, to make sure everyone is respected, considered, and treated well so that everyone can be comfortable."

For families considering a personal assistant, experts suggest they familiarize themselves with each product's privacy policy before introducing it to the family.

"It’s tough to understand how these devices work, and in some cases consumers don’t care how they work," says Hughes of the IAPP.

"These are the beginnings of a sentient data-collecting future that we have," he says. "The benefits of that are going to be massive, and all of these things will bring unprecedented benefits to society and to consumers," he said.

Still, according to Hughes, "What we need to do at the same time, though, is make sure we're paying attention to the way in which that data creates problems for us."

 

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