00:52 GMT +320 November 2019
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    Privacy Be Damned! Amazon Unveils New Range of Products to Listen to Users Everywhere

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    Amazon has launched a range of wearable ‘digital assistants’, to ensure Alexa accompanies users everywhere they go and whatever they’re doing.

    Unveiled at an event in Seattle 26th September, Amazon’s Echo Frames smart glasses, Echo Loop ring and Echo Buds will connect Alexa with wearers’ face, hands and ears.

    The US$179.99 Echo Frames are equipped with directional speakers and microphones for Alexa, meaning emails, texts and other information can be read out to users, removing the need for them to do so themselves.

    Unlike the much-maligned Google Glass however, Alexa smart glasses aren’t equipped have a display or camera, but can be equipped with prescription lenses.

    The US$129.99 Echo Loop is a smart ring that vibrates to alert users of notifications, while built-in microphones and a speaker can be used to interact with Alexa. Echo Buds, competitors to Apple’s AirPods, will also cost US$129.99 and feature a wireless design, active noise reduction technology and integrated Alexa functionality similar to that provided by Siri with second-generation AirPods.

    ​Along with the new Alexa devices were a variety of Alexa-powered devices, including a smart oven, updated Echo Dot with integrated clock, improved standard Echo, smaller and cheaper Echo Flex that plugs into the wall, Echo Show 8 smart display, Echo Glow smart lamp for kids and pet tracker Fetch powered by long-range, low-power networking technology, Sidewalk.

    The event also saw the release of Alexa’s first celebrity voice – users can download actor Samuel L Jackson’s booming baritone to their devices for a mere $4.99, in both ‘explicit’ and ‘clean’ versions. Other celebrity voices will be added in 2020.

    Privacy Concerns

    Amazon further used the opportunity to announce it had improved the software responsible for listening out for ‘wake word’ “Alexa”, increasing accuracy 50 percent in the last 12 months and reducing false activations as a result. It’s claimed this improvement will ensure private conversations aren’t accidentally recorded. Meanwhile, changes to the way devices handle voice data, including allowing users to automatically delete voice recordings every three - 18 months, were also outlined.

    However, it’s unclear whether such reassurances will assuage ever-growing privacy fears about Alexa and ‘Internet-of-Things’ devices more generally. In particular, it was revealed in April Amazon employs thousands of people the world over to listen to voice recordings captured in Echo users’ homes and offices. 

    The recordings are transcribed and annotated before being fed back into the software – the stated aim is to eliminate gaps in the voice assistant’s understanding of human speech so it can better respond to commands, although reviewers are required to record the data whether the device has been activated purposely or not, and if reviewers hear any private details such as names or bank details, they’re told to simply mark it as “critical data” and move on to the next audio file.

    Amazon says its reviewers “only annotate an extremely small number of interactions from a random set of customers in order to improve the customer experience”, and uses the data to train speech recognition and natural language understanding systems, so Alexa can optimally understand requests.

    Nonetheless, Amazon doesn’t explicitly tell users a human could be listening to private recordings of their day-to-day lives – and the recordings are linked with account numbers, device serial numbers and a user’s name.

    Furthermore, for all Amazon’s claims of internal security overhaul, the ecommerce monopole said nothing of the immense risk of smart device hacking by malicious external actors. The ability to take over IoT devices isn’t even restricted to the most sophisticated hackers - in August 2017, Wired demonstrated how a security researcher turned an Echo into a wiretap just by getting his hands on it.

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