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Santa Monica-Based Consumer Watchdog Group Warns of “Snooping” Dangers from “Digital Assistants”


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December 20, 2017 -- They look innocent enough, but the small “digital assistants” being pushed for the holiday season by internet giants Amazon and Google could lead to eavesdropping and a “massive surveillance” of the homes of their users, a Santa Monica-based consumer watchdog warns.

Consumer Watchdog says its analysis of patent applications filed by Amazon and Google for their intelligent digital assistants indicates plans for the increasingly ubiquitous little devises to be used to snoop on those in its range.

On Tuesday, the organization called on the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to investigate and take action against Google and Amazon for deceptively marketing their Home and Echo digital assistants.

"The digital devices are being pushed into homes with the promise that collection will be governed by the 'awake' word, yet patents that have been filed outline far more privacy invasive practices," John Simpson, the group’s privacy and deception project director, wrote in a letter to top FTC officials.

"The goal is to get the devices distributed and then to change their terms of service, Simpson said in the letter to Acting Chairman Maureen Ohlhausen and Commissioner Terrell McSweeny. "That is flat out deception. We believe the patents clearly show the companies' intent.”

Consumer Watchdog also said Google and Amazon could already be violating that “awake word” policy, and called on the FTC to investigate Google and Amazon’s “current digital assistant data collection practices.”

It also said Google Home and Amazon Echo violate the Children’s Online Privacy Act.

“COPPA appears to be violated unless a child’s spoken words being recorded and analyzed by Google Home or Amazon Echo involve a conversation with a parent,” Simpson said.

“How else could consent have been given? Another troubling scenario would be when one child and a friend speak to the device.

"Perhaps the companies have figured an acceptable way to obtain consent from the parent of the child whose home houses the device -- though we don’t see what it would be -- but how does the parent of the other child, who is not present, give meaningful consent?”

Google and Amazon have said the devices only record voices when activated by individuals usi g "wake words." The recordings are then transmitted back to Amazon and Google servers, with the questions analyzed and answered.

But Consumer Watchdog said the patents revealed the devices could be used as “surveillance equipment for massive information collection and intrusive digital advertising.”

The device could be manipulated to “eavesdrop on everything from confidential conversations to your toilet flushing habits to children’s movements and the books on bedside tables.

“They would know when you go to sleep and whom you wake up with,” Simpson said.

The patents reveal the devices’ possible use as surveillance equipment for massive information collection and intrusive digital advertising, he said in unveiling the organizations findings.

“Google and Amazon executives want you to think that Google Home and Amazon Echo are there to help you out at the sound of your voice,” Simpson said.

“In fact, they’re all about snooping on you and your family in your home and gathering as much information on your activities as possible,” he said in unveiling the organization’s finding earlier this month.

“You might find them useful sometimes, but think about what you’re revealing about yourself and your family, and how that information might be used in the future.”

“Instead of charging you for these surveillance devices, Google and Amazon should be paying you to take one into your home,” Simpson said.

Among the key findings, based on patent applications is that digital assistants can be “awake” even when users think they aren’t listening.

The digital assistants are supposed to react only when they “hear” a so-called “wake-word.” For Amazon Echo it’s “Alexa” and for Google Home it’s “OK, Google.”

But in fact, the devices listen all the time they are turned on -- and Amazon has envisioned Alexa using that information to build profiles on anyone in the room to sell them goods, he said.

Amazon filed a patent application for an algorithm that lets the device identify statements of interest -- such as “I love skiing,” -- enabling the speaker to be surveilled based on their interests and targeted for related advertising.

Digit assistants can connect to other internet-enabled home systems as a way of monitoring activities.

The organization said the Google patent application described using a smart home system to monitor and control screen time, hygiene habits, meal and travel schedules, and other activity.

“The system even claims it can “infer mischief” based on audio and motion sensor readings from rooms where children are present,” Simpson said. “Silent children who move are inferred to be mischievous.”

Consumer Watchdog said the “devices are envisioned as part of a surveillance web in the home to chart families’ patterns so that they can more easily be marketed, based on individual interests.

“Google connects its Google Home to various “smart” devices such as thermostats and lighting made by another Alphabet Inc. division, Nest,” Simpson said.

“When connected, ‘inferences’ could be made about when occupants are home, sleeping, cooking, when they are in the den watching television, when they shower and when they flush the toilet.”

“Another Google patent outlines ways it could collect information about family members’ interests and activities to infer likely purchases. For example, the application describes how sports camp could be marketed to a 15-year-old boy holding a basketball in the living room.

“It also describes how Google could infer an interest in the actor Will Smith by combining a users’ browser search history with an image on a user’s t-shirt obtained from a Nest camera in the home."

It also describes how the device could sell you a TV show by spying on a book on your bedside table, he said.

“The answers to these questions may help third-parties benefit consumers by providing them with interesting information, products and services as well as with providing them with targeted advertisements,” he said of the patent application.

“This isn’t about helping people, it’s about selling people,” said Simpson. “If these patents are implemented, there will be unparalleled surveillance of our private lives. The privacy invading implications of these devices are profound.”

Hackers and identity thieves are also likely to be able to get a hold of data compiled by Google and Amazon's snooping, the organization said, and pointed to Google Home’s own FAQ section, which contains a warning:

“Anyone who is near your Google Home device can request information from it, and if you have given Google Home access to your calendars, Gmail or other personal information, people can ask your Google Home device about that information.

"Google Home also gets information about you from your other interactions with Google services.”

Simpson said the applications “reflect the ambitious thinking of companies’ research and development teams,” but not necessarily mean all concepts will be implemented.

“Digital assistants may appeal to some people because they make them feel modern and tech savvy,” said Simpson. “But that feeling -- if you want it -- comes at the cost of your personal privacy.”


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