EDITORIAL: Alexa, are you snooping on me? Can lawmakers stop you?

SHARE EDITORIAL: Alexa, are you snooping on me? Can lawmakers stop you?

An Echo Sub and Echo Inputs, part of Amazon’s push toward giving audiophiles Alexa connectivity, on display last year in Amazon’s Day 1 building in Seattle. | Grant Hindsley/AFP/Getty Images

If you’re curious about whether your TV, a set of speakers or some other electronic device in your home might be quietly recording everything you say, you might assume the answer can be found in that long and tedious “terms of service” agreement that came with the device.

But that isn’t necessarily the case.

Many of these devices, especially now in the age of voice-activated services such as Alexa, automatically listen in and record us without anybody having to flip a switch. And the tech companies that provide such services don’t always tell us this, or explain how the information can be used.


We support a bill pending in the Illinois House, the Keep Internet Devices Safe Act, that would require tech companies to tell us they are recording us — if, when and how — and what is being done with the information. The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Cristina Castro, D-Elgin, passed in the Senate with bipartisan support.

We also support a bill pending in the Senate, the Data Transparency and Privacy Act, that would require companies that collect data from users of apps and websites — such as what ads you look at and what products you buy — to alert the consumer. This would allow you to make a more informed choice about whether you even want to use that app or website.

This second bill, sponsored by state Rep. Art Turner, D-Chicago, also would allow consumers to learn once a year what information about them has been collected, as well as the types and numbers of third parties (such as marketing companies) that were given the information. The bill would allow consumers to prohibit this information from being sold.

How much surreptitious listening really is going on? We don’t know because the tech companies don’t have to tell us.

Nobody is surprised, for example, that a voice-command service such as Alexa is listening in all the time — that’s the whole point. But how about your children’s toys? In 2017, the FBI warned parents of privacy and safety risks from children’s toys connected to the internet.

The unsettling reality, privacy experts say, is that nobody really knows how often microphones on various gadgets are turned on without warning.

Just last week, Bloomberg reported that thousands of Amazon.com workers are listening in on everyday household and office conversations captured by Amazon’s Echo speakers. Amazon said the point is to improve the company’s Alexa service, so that it does a better job of understanding when people command it to play music, answer trivia questions, give a weather report or turn off the lights.

But if somebody at Amazon is listening in on your private conversations, we’re guessing you’d like to know.

The aim of the two proposed state laws is not to limit innovation or restrict commerce. Tech companies would remain free to create and market new products. And they would remain free to collect and sell all kinds of personal data. The two bills simply would require that we, the consumer, be told when somebody’s snooping on us — listening to our conversations and tracking our actions — and provide us ways to opt out.

In what has come to be called the surveillance economy, a good rule of thumb is that any online service that you are not paying for, such as Facebook or Google, is tracking you in some way because you are the product. They are collecting data on you that they can sell to others.

Many Americans might be fine with that. Our notions as to how much privacy anybody can really expect have evolved. Many more of us might accept ever greater trade-offs between privacy and convenience if the terms were carefully spelled out.

The proposed Keep Internet Devices Safe Act originally included a provision that people could sue companies that secretly recorded them. That provision was cut from the bill in response to objections from the tech industry. Now, enforcement will be left up to the Illinois attorney general’s office.

Personal privacy is not yet a lost cause. Tech companies should not be allowed to operate in the shadows without informed consent.


Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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