With Amazon Echo, you may become just a statistic


Amazon launched its Echo device without much fanfare a few days ago. It is an exciting device which is omnipotent, can do nearly everything that one would want with a personal internet-connected device. Echo gives you a much needed break from screens, which also means you won't have to carry it around or allow it to divert your attention from other things you were doing.

Echo is a personal assistant-meets-Apple’s Siri. It can assist you with queries, can make your to-do lists, add things to your shopping cart, give you the news of the day and check the weather and time for you. It can also set alarms for you. It would be safe to assume that it can do almost everything which Google does through its multiple applications.

The idea of having a digital personal assistant seems exciting enough for people to order it online. But just like an efficient secretary, Echo will eventually also know everything about you, including your dirty secrets!

Let’s take a look at some of your data that Echo has access to and how it can be leveraged.

Buying – Echo knows what you are researching to buy and Amazon can use that to upsell to you. While that’s no different from what it does on the web or on mobile, the nature of Echo, which reduces the number of steps while buying to one command, makes you even more vulnerable to impulse buying.

To-do lists - To do lists are one of the best ways to schedule you day, to remember things. Echo knows whom you meet, how your day is scheduled, and what projects you are working on. Does the to-do list comprise of keywords such as "meeting” or more of "calls" or "mail to x"? For companies, it is also the best way to profile people.

Alarms - By setting an alarm you are indicating to the device what time you wake up. And over a period of time it is easy to detect patterns in your morning routine. It can figure out which member of the family wakes up at what time by identifying which voice sets alarm for what time.

News - Which member of a family asks for what kind of news: are they interested in technology news or politics, are they interested in gadgets or sports (should I sell you the new Nike shoes or Xiaomi phone)?

While Apple and Google have nearly complete control of all our electronic devices which come with screens, Amazon has been more passive in its approach. With Goodreads, Amazon already knows what we read, and our reading shapes our thinking. It knows which books we are planning to buy based on our To Read list. It also knows which books were casual reads and which books had a strong impact on our thinking based on our recommendation. And if that was not enough, it knows exactly which page we are reading and what we are highlighting with the help of Kindle. So this passivity is something which people should worry about as it is not intrusive and one might even forget it is there listening to all conversations in the house.

Sure enough Echo has a power button to switch it off. While it is on, 'Alexa' is the keyword to wake the device for receiving commands and the blue lights will be on to indicate that the device is ready to receive commands. But saying that one can turn off the device when it is not needed is easier said than done. Let’s figure out why, by answering a few questions -

1) When was the last time you logged out from facebook/Gmail on your computer? Can't remember? Ok, let's try again.

2) When was the last time you logged out from any other social profile from your mobile device?

3) When did you switch off your cell phone/tab/kindle last (let's not discuss the times when your battery ran out of juice).

4) Keeping all the above questions in mind, what is the probability that you will switch off (yes, we are talking about powering off the device) the Amazon Echo device.

But with seven powerful microphones, and always on device it might listen to everything we say, and the kind of discussions we have in our house. Does the dad favor one political party and the son another? Does the son listen to Pink Floyd or Beatles most of the time? Which movies do you watch? Do you wait for certain advertisements to finish before changing the channel?

With a good team of statistical and data scientists at their disposal, it would not be too difficult for the team to decipher the pattern in data and the audio clips. They will know more about you and your family than you ever will.

By force of habit, we may end up leaving it on all the time, thus in turn opting in to give out all our information, and offering ourselves to be the guinea pigs for the psychological experiments and even end up paying for it.