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What Does Constant Surveillance by Smart Devices Mean for the Average Guy?

Last week, Amazon unveiled a new batch of Echo hardware. For those who aren’t up to date on their tech, Echo is a brand of smart devices that connect to Alexa—a voice-controlled assistant—to play music; make calls; set alarms; check your calendar, weather, traffic and sports scores; manage to-do lists; control smart home devices; and search the web.

One recent addition to the Echo lineup is the Echo Spot, an alarm clock fitted with a built-in camera and a 2.5-inch screen, allowing it to double as an alarm clock or a nursery camera (it can also make video calls).

Upon first glance, the Echo Spot gives us a hopeful glimpse into a lifestyle of the future—one that allows us to stay connected with our friends and family from the comfort of our beds. But as The Verge points out, the Echo Spot also presents serious privacy concerns:

“Amazon is using the Spot as a very clever way of making you comfortable with having a camera in your bedroom. It’s also a camera that will probably be pointing directly at your bed.”

The Spot isn’t the first Echo device meant for bedroom use, either: The Echo Look boasts a built-in camera that takes photos of your outfits to provide fashion recommendations. These photos are then stored in the Amazon Web Service cloud—where they’re almost certainly used to tailor online shopping suggestions (more on that later)—until you manually delete them.

Worse yet, even if you’re not concerned about Amazon peeking into your most private spaces, hackers have a long history of using malicious tools to hijack PC webcams, so it’s not a stretch to assume they could do the same with these new devices. Even Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg covers his laptop's camera with tape, as does former FBI Director James Comey.

Needless to say, this growing army of Echo technologies presents some questions: Are we on the verge of being constantly surveilled, and if so, what can we do to maintain some semblance of privacy? According to Jesse Woo, research associate in privacy and cybersecurity at the Georgia Institute of Technology, it’s unclear.

“It looks like [Amazon] stores information they collect from Alexa, and they’re not very specific about what that information is,” Woo explains, adding that even he, an attorney, struggled to make sense of the (presumably deliberately) vague privacy policy. “It doesn’t look like they’re compiling video, but they can always change their policy at some point in the future.” In other words, Amazon compiles the searches and commands we perform via Echo much like Google compiles the searches we perform on their search engine. So, you know, maybe don’t go asking Alexa stuff like where to buy hard drugs.

The uncomfortable truth is that we agree to having our data collected the moment we purchase these products. “If you consent and are given good notice [which can be found in those lengthy privacy policies few of us bother to read], then companies are allowed to track you and collect information about you,” Woo explains. “The whole reason they’re selling you these devices is to compile information.” This information, naturally, is then used to target you in hopes of getting you to buy more products.

Which brings us to the larger question of whether we should really be concerned about this seemingly inevitable data collecting. “If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t want anyone tracking you or knowing anything about you, then you should be worried, and you probably shouldn’t be using these devices,” Woo suggests. “But if you feel the utility of these devices is worth the trade-off, that’s fine.”

Just be prepared to live with knowing that, should you ever run for president, someone, somewhere, almost certainly has incriminating evidence of your past internet searches.