Is Amazon Alexa Invading Privacy? Analysis of an Ethical Dilemma

By the end of 2018, half of the United States’ population will own a smart home device, whether it be an Amazon Echo, Google Home, Apple HomePod, Sonos speaker, smart thermostat, etc (Shields, 2018). Smart home devices are great for granting users more convenience in their daily lives. However, with all of these various features comes great risk. If Amazon Pay is enabled on your Alexa device, anyone’s voice has access to purchasing items on Amazon.com through that device. Fortunately, this service is very easy to disable. In fact, all of the privacy and security risk-prone features in an Amazon Alexa device can be disabled (Kleinman, 2018).

Executives from both Amazon Alexa and LG presenting a brand new LG smart refrigerator equipped with Alexa voice functionality (Levin, 2017).

Despite this, the majority of consumers are still wary of the risk factors weighing into using a smart home device, particularly an Amazon Echo. The overarching ethical dilemma for Amazon is that consumers, as stakeholders of the company, want a personalized experience when using a smart home device without all of the privacy risks regarding their personal data and private conversations. The data from a survey of 2,000 US residents conducted by technology provider Ooma shows that customers would like the home security benefits from smart home devices, such as intruder alerts, but not the risk of being spied on (Shields, 2018). While this may seem like a very difficult task to execute, Amazon is making strides using face detection within their home security system.

Overall, I believe that customers of smart home devices should not stress about these devices invading their privacy. And, if a consumer is wary about their personal information being at risk, Amazon has incorporated various settings to restrict what user data gets saved. Amazon is transparent about their consumer data usage; they do not sell it at all, as that would actually be less profitable than simply using it for themselves to refine their advertising and shopping recommendations (Hildenbrand, 2018).

In May of this year, there was an Amazon Alexa eavesdropping scandal where a private conversation had been sent to a saved contact of the Echo device owner. Lily Newman claims that “the report instantly sparked concern and outrage that Amazon’s Echo smart speaker is listening to and recording much more than the company claims” (Newman, 2018). However, it has since been proven that a word in the conversation must have been extremely similar to the wake word “Alexa,” and following words must have triggered a “send message” request and accepted all of the following prompts in order to send the voice message to the recipient. This situation was determined to be a major happenstance.

Amazon was not deemed at fault because they did not violate any of their preset policies or regulations, available to the public in the Code of Business Conduct and Ethics, in regards to the formalistic aspects of their adopted ethical theory. Amazon grants customers the full right to be informed by requiring each and every customer of an Alexa enabled device to acknowledge the Alexa Terms of Use, which clearly states that people are not allowed to use Alexa if they do not consent to these terms. Despite this, the situation still managed to insinuate distress among Amazon Echo device owners. Customers were advised to be more aware of the potential risks of the security of their data and conversations, and even unplug their Echo device if they feel it necessary (Newman, 2018).

By these principles, Amazon illustrates the ethical theory of virtue theory. Amazon demonstrates compassion by encrypting and not exposing user data collected from their line of smart home devices. As a company, Amazon avoids greed by providing low prices on Amazon.com. Amazon sacrifices profit and actually loses money on some of their Kindle products to simply gain more user data. However, if Amazon chose to sell user data (if it resulted in a profit), they would be emphasizing egoism, as they would be distributing user data in exchange for money solely for their own financial benefit. Instead, Amazon chooses to use their user data to benefit the stakeholders of the company, especially the customers. Amazon wishes to create a full “360-degree view” of a customer; they want to know everything there is to know about what each customer buys online so they can target every individual with more relevant advertisements and recommendations. Employees and shareholders also receive this benefit because of increased profits from utilizing user data (Hildenbrand, 2018).

Amazon also displays traits from the ethical theory of relativism. Specifically, in their Echo division, their conducts as a business must be based on current society. From Amazon’s perspective, with big data analytics in its largest form ever, a user-friendly smart speaker that can collect and manipulate user data makes sense for both Amazon and its customers. Furthermore, especially in the United States when compared to other countries, added conveniences through technology have never been so popular.

I believe that Amazon is acting ethically and appropriately. Amazon collects user data to benefit their customers, which also benefits the company and its stakeholders. They ensure that their smart home products do not spy on customers, whether it be visually or audibly. Customers are often skeptical about the motives of the company because they believe that Alexa devices are “always listening,” causing an invasion of privacy, but this is simply not true. The only times when an Alexa device is “listening” is when it hears the wake-word (most commonly “Alexa,” but it is alterable). The device then gives some acknowledgment that it’s listening, whether it be a visual blue light ring or an audible beep. Only then it is listening to voice prompts and shipping that data to the cloud for processing (Stegner, 2018).

User privacy can be a critical issue for lots of companies. However, current systems in place, such as HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act), provide companies with rule-bases to uphold. Moreover, every company must provide their external policies and regulations to their customers. I would propose to Amazon to better enforce these user privacy details to their Echo device customers. Publish news articles, create introduction videos, and make television advertisements leave viewers with a sigh of relief that their device is not a potential security threat to their privacy. The Alexa terms of use should not just exist in fine print in the instruction manual included in the box of an Echo, it should be written in layman’s terms and posted everywhere, ensuring customers that their data and conversations are not being compromised.

Works Cited

Hildenbrand, J. (2018, March 27). Amazon Alexa: What kind of data does Amazon get from me? Retrieved October 8, 2018, from https://www.androidcentral.com/amazon-alexa-what-kind-data-does-amazon-get-me

Levin, A. (2017, July 26). Is Amazon’s ‘Alexa’ Crossing a New Privacy Threshold? Retrieved October 14, 2018, from https://www.newsmax.com/adamlevin/alexa-amazon-echo/2017/07/26/id/803924/

Kleinman, J. (2018, February 21). How to Protect Your Privacy on Your Smart Home Devices. Retrieved October 8, 2018, from https://lifehacker.com/how-to-protect-your-privacy-on-your-smart-home-devices-1823181500

Newman, L. H. (2018, May 25). Don’t Freak Out About That Amazon Alexa Eavesdropping Situation. Retrieved October 8, 2018, from https://www.wired.com/story/the-alexa-amazon-eavesdropping-situation/

Shields, N. (2018, April 26). New survey shows consumers are wary of smart home devices invading their privacy. Retrieved October 8, 2018, from https://www.businessinsider.com/survey-says-consumers-have-privacy-concerns-with-smart-home-devices-2018-4

Stegner, B. (2018, January 10). 7 Ways Alexa and Amazon Echo Pose a Privacy Risk. Retrieved October 9, 2018, from https://www.makeuseof.com/tag/alexa-amazon-echo-privacy-risk/