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Local attorneys warn of privacy & security threats from Amazon Echo, Google Home devices

Posted at 4:43 PM, Feb 02, 2017
and last updated 2017-02-06 11:13:55-05

Local attorneys warn that your personal information may be at stake with "always-on" devices like the Amazon Echo and Google Home.

"With an always-on device, you have invited something into your home that you're speaking to and it's recording you, and it's exporting that data to a third party," said Elizabeth Bonham, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU.

Always-on devices are essentially always listening, waiting for words that will that will "wake" it up. They are words that the device responds to in an effort to assist the consumer with a question or request. And when the devices "wake up," they start recording. The recordings are transmitted to the companies' servers.

"People should be concerned about others having access to that information," said Tom Haren, an attorney in Westlake.

Haren said consumers who have the always-on devices need to be aware of the following legal concerns:

"There's a risk of not only hacking your particular device but also hacking Amazon servers," he said.

Haren said hackers are a threat, especially without a strong Wifi password. That could lead to someone listening in on one's conversations.

He also said that law enforcement can and will try to use recordings against individuals in court. That already happened in Arkansas where police have issued a warrant to Amazon, telling the company to turn over the audio recorded by an Echo in a home where a murder took place. So far, Amazon has not complied.

"So if you ask Alexa [the female voice of Amazon's always-on devices] what's the weather in Houston but somebody behind you is making a drug deal, Alexa is going to pick up that drug deal the same it's answering your question about the weather."

Third, Haren warned about mass surveillance.

"There's a little bit of a concern for government surveillance and monitoring some of the information that's transmitted to Amazon," he added.

"The consumer at the very minimum needs to be very aware of what kind of software that company is using and what kind of policies that company is using," said Bonham.

News 5 reached out to Amazon and Google. Both said their devices stop recording once they have processed the request or question. They also said they give consumers the authority to delete the recordings stored on their servers. It's just a matter of remembering to do so.