The 21st century has seen an unprecedented explosion of the smart or voice-activated home devices. Home automation is exactly what it sounds like. The ability to control items around the house with a simple push of the button, or a voice command. While that seems like a good idea, Seth Moulton isn’t so much thrilled by this transformation. And it arguably understandable. Prominent smart home devices that have been widely accepted are Amazon Echo and Google Nest. 21 percent of adults own such a device with the rate on a winning streak. It is estimated that 14 million people got their first such device last year alone.
What if the devices act without your permission? There have been reports that prove that the devices can go rogue and record audio of what the users say or even do without the user authorization. The Internet of Thing has been described using so many words, but of late, Internet of Terror or Trash seems to fit the description. Why? These devices present a large amount of vulnerabilities. For instance, an Amazon Echo device accidentally recorded a couple’s private in-home conversations and sent the audio to random people in the owner’s contact list.
Even though Amazon has come out to clearly defend the action of their devices, more questions than about the controllability of the devices have risen. In an email, Amazon boss Jeffrey P. Bezos said “As unlikely as this string of events is, we are evaluating options to make this case even less likely.” In April 2018, researchers found a flaw in the Alexa voice assistant, enabling the Echo to continue listening to people’s conversation without them knowing. Amazon would later correct that mistake after the researchers alerted the company.
The Automatic Listening Exploitation Act
In July 2019, 2020 democratic presidential aspirant and Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton introduced a bill that would limit how smart device manufacturers like Amazon and Google collect user data. The Automatic Listening Exploitation Act, or the ALEXA Act seeks to empower the FTC to seek immediate penalties if the smart devices are found to record user conversations without their knowledge or authorization.
The bill comes at a convenient time given the regular scandals regarding technology industry leaders Google, Amazon and Apple. What the government is doing it somehow obliging the mega-corporations to respect the confidentiality of the population. Under Seth’s bill, each recording made without the authorization of the owner obliges the manufacturer of the device to pay $40,000. The bill also allows the user to personally select the records that can be stored on the servers of the manufacturers and which ones to delete.
“Smart speakers and doorbells are great, but consumers should have a way to fight back when tech companies collect more data than Americans have agreed to give up,” Moulton said. “More broadly, Congress should give Americans a bigger say in the data that companies collect. It’s time for a next generation of digital privacy laws, and it can start by holding corporations to their own privacy commitments.”
In an interview with The Verge Rep. Moulton said that he would like to see the legislation spark a debate in technology, within the halls of the Congress. “The Europeans are way ahead of us, and yet we have a Senate that doesn’t even understand Facebook,” Moulton said. “The point is that Congress has been asleep at the switch here,” Moulton said. “There’s some industry forces in Congress that are preventing some members from moving forward with regulation, so we took the matter into our own hands with this bill.”
However, the bill allows exceptions, for example, where there is service improvement. For instance, “improve the speech recognition and natural language understanding of the voice-user interface” or “help the voice-user interface to adapt to speech patterns, vocabulary, and personal preferences.” However, this triggers something every supporter of the bill should be concerned about. Considering that almost anything could be conceived by a company like Google as a service improvement, it is unclear how effective the bill would be.
What supporters say
In the wake of Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica Scandal, both the chambers of the congress have been reported to initiate a draft legislation that would create a federal data privacy framework. Proponents of the bill say that this recent innovation in technology necessitates the need for an update in federal law to combat its potential misuse
Though it early too early to tell, the bill doesn’t seem to have attracted any cosponsors. The bill awaits a potential vote in the House of Energy and Commerce Committee. But what’s clear is that the bill is about to face some tech giant with potential power to squash it even before it begins. Companies such as amazon will exercise their lobbying to kill this bill.
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Eric Lawrence Frazier MBA
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President and CEO of The Power Is Now Inc.
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Aguilar, Michael. “The Hive Mind: When IoT Devices Go Rogue | WeLiveSecurity.” WeLiveSecurity, 26 Oct. 2016.
Condliffe, Jamie. “The Internet of Things Goes Rogue.” MIT Technology Review, MIT Technology Review, 30 Sept. 2016.
GovTrack.us. “Automatic Listening Exploitation Act Would Fine a Company $40K for Each Recording Their Smart Home….” Medium, GovTrack Insider, 6 Sept. 2019.
Hamza Shaban. “An Amazon Echo Recorded a Family’s Conversation, Then Sent It to a Random Person in Their Contacts, Report Says.” The Washington Post, 24 May 2018.
Kelly, Makena. “Seth Moulton Tackles Alexa Data Collection with New Bill.” The Verge, The Verge, 24 July 2019.
UsaReally. “Control over Uncontrolledness: Penalties for Unauthorized Recordings of ‘Smart Devices.’” USA Really, 8 Sept. 2019.