Did you get an Amazon Echo for Christmas? Were you psyched by the idea that with just a few words—“Hey Alexa…”—you could wake up that obsidian column, ask it to play music or order dinner or read your kids “Goodnight Moon” for the six thousandth time, and keep your hands free to play Super Mario Run on your phone? Great! Just make sure you don’t say anything the police could later use against you in a court of law.
On December 27, just days after millions of new users—by Amazon’s count—found the device under their Christmas tree, news broke that in the course of investigating a murder, an Arkansas police department had asked the company to fork over data from the suspect’s Echo. It’s possible, the authorities argued, that the personal assistant sprang to life during the killing and recorded some crucial audio. Amazon declined, arguing that it “objects to overbroad or otherwise inappropriate demands as a matter of course.” But the whole affair was enough to make a reasonable tech adopter wonder how long Jeff Bezos can hold the barking dogs of justice at bay and whether Echo users had welcomed a cloud-connected Trojan Horse into their homes.
The uncomfortable fact is, this is nothing new. Your phone’s AI—Siri, Cortana, Google Assistant—is always listening, just waiting for you to ask where to get the best dumplings. “We’re entering a world in which we should expect that our most private moments are being recorded, archived, and saved,” says Will Scott of the Seattle Privacy Coalition, a surveillance watchdog. Which is scary enough, but what happens if authorities ask Amazon for the right to spy on us through our devices?
Our best defense may be those companies’ self-interest. It can take time to pass tech legislation—like, say, tighter restrictions on police access to our online lives. But nothing can effect change quite like the potential for lost profit. “People underestimate how much companies work toward having a good reputation for protecting your data,” says Emily McReynolds, a cyberlaw expert and associate director of the Tech Policy Lab at the University of Washington. “They’re going to put the customer first because it’s good for business.” Score one for capitalism.