U.S. senators question Amazon about transmission of recorded private conversation

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Two United States senators wrote to CEO Jeff Bezos questioning Amazon’s use of private consumer information, Wired reported.

Republican Senator Jeff Flake and Democratic Senator Chris Coons asked specific questions about the Amazon Echo smart voice assistant Alexa. Alexa recorded a Portland, Oregon couple’s private conversation in early May. Mistaking background words for an unintended series of commands, Alexa started recording and subsequently emailed a recording of the conversation to someone on the couple’s contact list.

Flake is the chairman and Coons is the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law.

Two weeks after the incident, Amazon sent Digital Trends a statement explaining the chain of events that led to the recording and transmission. At the end of the statement, Amazon said, “As unlikely as this string of events is, we are evaluating options to make this case even less likely.”

For senators Flake and Coons, “evaluating options” clearly is not enough. Wired quoted Flake referring to a “post-Facebook” world following the April revelation that political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica illegally mined data stored on Facebook of up to 87 million Americans.

The letter to Bezos has almost 30 questions, according to Wired. The initial questions seek detail on Amazon’s capture and use of private voice recordings, but other questions address broader issues of consumer privacy.

Referring to the Portland recording and transmission, Coons said, “This incident makes it clear we don’t fully understand the privacy risks we’re taking. Amazon owes it to the American people to be clearer about what’s happening with this technology.”

The letter demands explanations of “any and all purposes for which Amazon uses, stores, and retains consumer information, including voice data, collected and transmitted by an Echo device.”

The issues that prompted the senators’ letter have implications beyond consumer privacy and further than Amazon, Facebook, Google, and other huge tech companies. Personal data has been collected, stored, and used by a multitude of websites since consumers began accessing the internet via the World Wide Web in 1991.

Politically motivated data manipulation as occurred with Cambridge Analytics’s data mining is a wake-up call to the potential vulnerability not only of individuals but also of nations. As Wired quoted Flake, “The age of innocence is gone.”







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