business news in context, analysis with attitude

The Washington Post reports that two US Senators - Jeff Flake (R-Arizona) and Christopher A. Coons (D-Delaware) have sent a letter to Amazon founder/CEO Jeff Bezos posing six questions about how its Alexa-powered devices work, including whether they record private conversations or misinterpret human commands.

According to the story, the lawmakers - who sit on the Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on privacy, technology and the law - are looking for answers about “what the company is doing to protect the privacy of its customers, who often place the Alexa-powered devices in the most intimate spaces in their homes.”

The letter, the Post writes, “asked for the number of complaints the company has received about misinterpreted commands; the reasons Amazon might use and retain customer voice data captured by Echos; and what policies are in place to prevent the misuse of voice data and to prevent future episodes where conversations are shared without a customer's consent. The senators also asked more granular questions about Alexa and Echo's protocols for activation, recording voices, and access to third party developers.”

The senators’ interest was prompted by a recent incident in which an Echo seemed to record a couple’s conversation and then send it, unbidden, to friends on their contacts list. Amazon attributed the occurrence to an unlikely string and convergence of events, but has said that it is looking into ways to prevent it from happening again.

Amazon has not yet commented on the senators’ request.
KC's View:
I have no problem with the idea that Jeff Bezos should be asked to appear before the subcommittee and answer questions about this emerging technology and how it will affect people’s lives and work. He’s the best person to do so, his company has an outsized role in many people’s lives, and he may be the best person out there to provide some illumination and context.