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Amazon Echo

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The NY Times has an article about some of the alarms being raised as homes become more dependent on the internet, and internet enabled appliances. Police in several areas have sought contents of Alexa and Siri commands in hope of discovering information about possible crimes.


One alternative is to create a separate guest network for your appliances, TV, music download, etc. The hope is to avoid giving an outside hacker access to the areas where your financial data, personal data resides. That would, however, require you to move your Amazon account into the guest area, I think.


Older versions of refrigerator etc internet access may not be up to date with security patches. Nobody downloads the necessary updates, although that would seem like something Trend, Kaspersky and the others would do well to add in their packages.


People should also carefully read company privacy policies. David Britton, a vice president in the fraud and identity department of Experian, the credit reporting agency, said people should be curious about whether companies themselves were a threat to user privacy.

What are they capturing about you? he said. Is the data leaving the device? Is it being sent back to the mother ship?

Consider the smart speakers from Amazon and Google. Amazon said its Alexa smart assistant, which is used in its Echo speakers, automatically downloads software updates to defend against new security threats. Data from the Echo is also uploaded to Amazons servers only after people utter the wake word Alexa, the company said. That minimizes the likelihood that the device will record conversations unrelated to requests intended for Alexa.

Google said its Home speaker similarly issued regular software updates and employed advanced security features, like a technique that disables the device if its software is tampered with. The company added that the speaker processed speech only after the words O.K. Google or Hey Google were detected.

But other large brands occasionally engage in behavior that customers may find objectionable. The smart TV maker Vizio, for example, made headlines with revelations from the investigative news site ProPublica that it kept a detailed record of customer viewing habits and shared it with advertisers, who could then use the information to identify other devices you owned.


My daughter, who I love dearly, gave me an Amazon Echo for Christmas. This is something I never would have bought for myself but I felt that once I actually had it I ought to give it a try.


Setup was relatively easy. I loaded the Alexa app on my phone and followed the instructions. They weren't complicated but it took three tries before the Echo connected with our wi-fi. I consider that a win. I put the Echo on the kitchen counter.


One of the reasons I hadn't considered buying an Echo myself was that I couldn't figure out what I'd do with it. Getting one as a gift didn't solve that problem but it motivated me to try. The Echo responds to voice commands and it has a name - Alexa.


"Alexa ... what time is it?" works.


"Alexa ... what's the weather?" works too.


"Alexa ... what time does the sun set today?" also works. (Deb thought that one up.)


"Alexa ... are there any problems on the R line?" and "Alexa ... New York City subway delays" don't work. Too bad. That would have been useful. After Googling around I found a command to get that information but I'll be damned if I can remember it. It really shouldn't take a very carefully worded request to get it to respond with that information.


What it can do, very well, is play Pandora stations. After you link it to your Pandora account (via the app) it responds to requests like "Alexa ... play Wilfrid's Pandora Monkees radio." That's sort of nice since we have the Echo in the kitchen. The sound is reasonably good.


I impressed Deb by having it play a bunch of Mary Chapin Carpenter songs. Deb was much less impressed when it wasn't able to play La Traviata when she asked it. She said something to the effect of "How can it not know that opera? It's the most famous fucking opera in the world." Like I said, Alexa is a work in progress.


I understand the potential privacy risks. On the other hand I lead an incredibly boring life. We don't have sex on the kitchen floor where Alexa could listen in. I am not a terrorist discussing potential targets. At least not yet. I have not been tempted to use Alexa to make stock trades or make wire transfers of large amounts of cash.


However Alexa is finding out that I use vulgar language with some frequency, often when she herself is unable to respond to what I consider a fairly simple request. All kidding aside, I think Alexa ought to be as smart as Google, or at least well on the way. If I can type in a question to Google and get a responsive answer Alexa should be able to do the same trick.


It appears I need to do some more Googling to find out the magic phrases that will get Alexa to correctly answer the 5 or 10 things I'm most likely to ask about. Yes, I know Alexa will respond to requests to buy things from Amazon but I don't see myself going down that particular road. Instead, I am much more likely to say "Alexa ... tell Jeff Bezos to go fuck himself."


But I prefer to look on the bright side. Over the next week or so I'll figure out a few magic phrases which will result in useful information. Or maybe, over the next year, Alexa will get smarter.


Any of you have an Amazon Echo? What are you doing with it? I suspect Nathan already has Alexa doing his taxes.

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I'll bet the San Francisco area is a hotbed of Alexa jokes. Keep them coming.

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My favorite thing to do with other peoples' Alexas is to tell it to wake me up at 4am.


I like that a lot. To change things up, why not have Alexa order a bunch of sex toys from Amazon. Imagine your friend's surprise when they get delivered.

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my tv records us and sells it to third parties. hasn't made my life any worse than it was before.


(we knew it would do this if we activated voice control, which my three year old did for us.)

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