Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Amazon Echo (amazon.com)
924 points by danielsamuels on Nov 6, 2014 | hide | past | favorite | 716 comments



Why I might buy an Echo:

- it's a speaker with extra features. At about the same price as a bluetooth speaker, and I need a better one of those, the extra features are basically free as long as the audio quality is good.

- it can answer questions at the dinner table. My wife and I both have the annoying habit of pulling out our phones to answer questions that come up during conversation. Asking "Alexa" instead would be much more socially pleasant.

- it can stream music without the hassle of bluetooth. Bluetooth streaming becomes less convenient when you don't know which of the many computers, phones or tablets were used to start the music, or where it is...

- my three year old can probably figure out how to use it

Thought I'd throw those out there, and start a "positive" thread. This discussion is overwhelmingly negative. Lots of good points being made in the negative comments, but there are some nice positives, too.


> - it can answer questions at the dinner table...

that would be my biggest use for it, well that and as a speaker I guess. I really hope that I can swap out "Alexa" for the word "Computer" so I could feel like I'm one step closer to Star Trek


I sincerely wonder about the effect of offloading so much of our "brainwork" to computers. No one remembers phone numbers or tries to navigate without GPS, and increasingly we depend on accesss to information so there's less practice with storage and recall.

What brain/neuron plasticity tells us is that our brains literally reallocate unused neurons for other tasks. So, on the one hand, a positive theory might have it that offloading more mundane tasks would free our brains for higher order thinking and creativity, etc.

But, it seems that we are instead finding more ways to distract ourselves with less meaningful "leisure" activity.

I don't know that we will literally start getting dumber, but it's hard to know whether we are headed in a good direction as the future gets closer to the now.


This is an old argument, it was made about writing, printing etc. The missing step is that these changes are actually optimisations because information really has become easier to access. If we were about to get transported to a pre-internet civilisation, then we would have cause to worry, but since we strongly expect to have access to computers and the internet for the rest of our lives, it is actually more efficient to spend our time learning other things.

We are getting worse at things that used to be considered 'smart' -- like information retention -- but we're better at using information because we have much more access to it now even than very smart people did in the 20th century.


>This is an old argument, it was made about writing, printing etc

One difference is that technology is replacing more and more of what we one might consider "mundane", but really involves higher order thinking that is important for creativity, critical-thinking, problem-solving, etc. For instance, the ability to draw from a broad swath of stored, assimilated, and well-understood information is a critical element of problem-solving and finding creative solutions.

Because functional intelligence to a large degree involves drawing on information and experiences to assemble solutions. This requires a "working set" from which to draw. It is not enough to simply look things up, because you don't know what to look up.

And, in general, what computers do for us that, say, simply printing or other older "technology" didn't supplant includes executive functioning (e.g. algorithmic tasks like mapping directions, etc.) Beyond simple information retrieval, computers actually solve problems for us. In fact, it's so different from something like printing that I am not sure I understand your analogy.

>we're better at using information because we have much more access to it now

Sounds intuitive, but I am not sure we have evidence for this. Ironically, though, computers are better at using information.

>it is actually more efficient to spend our time learning other things

I mentioned that this could be one theoretical upshot but, in general, I think our culture is going in the opposite direction with a tendency towards mindless distraction. Exclude tech people and reconsider your statement.


from the video: "..it only hears you when you use the wake word we chose..", so you can definitely chose "Computer" as your wake word


That doesn't necessarily mean that any word is an option, just that your set of options is larger than 1.


Isn't this patently false?

If it's not listening how can it hear the wake word?


Xbox and google now do the same thing. As I understand it all the sound is filtered locally for the keyword. If it's detected, then it starts recording and sends the audio to a server to be processed.


Now they just need a Paul Bettany voice pack.


That's pretty good, but it's second place to my desire for a Majel Barrett voice pack.


Funnily enough, Google Now's voice search was originally called "Project Majel" for that reason - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Google_Now#History


While we're being positive, I absolutely do not think Amazon would be stupid enough to shoot themselves in the foot sending all recorded data up to the cloud. I'm certain that within a few hours of release, someone will have a network monitor hooked up. Their findings will be widely known almost immediately, and this thing would be dead in the water if they were sending everything up. They know this already.


There's no way this thing has the power to do adequate voice recognition on device for arbitray speakers and queries, even given a limited domain. It's sending everything to Amazon for processing. The only thing it probably recognizes by itself is "Alexa."


Right, so it sends the commands that you give it only after it recognizes a pre-programmed word. It will likely not send up casual conversation surrounding the command, as there would not be a non-nefarious reason to do that.


False positives... But yeah they're probably rare. The real risk is that it could be hacked or national security lettered to listen permanently. The FBI has form in this regard.


I'm guessing it's Android under the covers, and I believe that Google voice recognition is now processed on the device - so it might well be powerful enough to do the voice recognition without the cloud.


I believe it's only limited command processing, and less accurate than what can be done with more powerful computers.


Doesn't mean the NSA or Chinese equivalent won't figure out how to hack Echo to plant a little piece of stealthware on it that records all conversations of suspects in "terrorism related" investigations. Such stealthware might get detected once or twice (though not often-- it won't be ubiquitous), but such detections will easily covered up by forcing Amazon to announce a rare and obscure firmware bug backstory. Actually, come to think of it, with proper contextual targeting, such stealthware wouldn't even need to send full conversations. Just wait for detection of "the meeting" or "the rally" and boom spend off all the info you need to effectively disrupt pro-democracy rallies in Hong Kong.


The NSA could also do the same thing to a phone.


Or a laptop, or an iPad, or anything with a microphone on, really.


Phones, laptops & ipads don't have microphones designed specifically to pick up conversations from the other side of the room...


This very likely uses network speech recognition, so most things (except for the wake-up word) are being streamed up and recognized in Amazon's data center (Siri, SVoice, etc all do this also)


Exactly. Casual conversation won't be sent up; only commands.


SmartTV and other home-automation-with-voice-recognition device manufacturers would like a word with you.


Actually it's the other way around. We (as consumers) should have a word with them.


Edit: I missed this: "Plus, Echo is Bluetooth-enabled so you can stream your favorite music services like Spotify, iTunes, and Pandora from your phone or tablet," which obsoletes some of the below. The point on monophonic audio still stands.

Out of curiosity, are you already embedded in the amazon cloud music ecosystem? I'm one of those luddites who still has a library of mp3s—I don't want to have to figure out what I can or can't get on some compatible streaming service here. That would be a lovely feature—if it had an aux-in port or bluetooth compatibility so I could still use it as a dumb speaker. Smart TV's still have inputs, e.g.

Additionally, if I'm not mistaken, it's monophone? Dual-driver, but only one "360-degree" channel of some sort?


I am also a "library of mp3 luddites", and to me it sounds as though the Echo can do any Bluetooth audio, like a modern head unit. So you might say, "Computer, play Bluetooth audio", or "Computer, skip this track," and it would work just like pressing play and skip in your car.

This may just be wishful thinking on my part, however.


Your three year old probably can't use it. Current voice recognition - Siri, kinect, et al - all seem to struggle with child voices. Maybe something they've expressly worked on for this 'home assistant' scenario, but I don't hold out much hope. It's a general pattern that early releases of human-interaction tech tend to optimize for 50th percentile western males.


As a person, I struggle with 3 year old voices... I think its just that they are still learning how to properly form words.


When one of my daughters was 3 someone handed an iphone with one of those apps with an animal that repeats things back. She said something with the word "color" in it, but it came out "cala."

It repeated it back (incorrectly) and then she got stuck in a loop of saying "not cala, cala!" and it repeating it back, getting more frustrated each time.


I'm guessing that was Talking Tom (the cat). My 2 year old daughter has gotten into similar loops with it several times. Usually though, it's just along the lines of, "No, YOU!"


Why wouldn't they? If they're being released in the west, they're optimizing for their largest target demographic.


Children generally don't enunciate as clearly as adults. Their speech is more difficult for a computer (or a human who doesn't know the language well!) to understand.


Siri literally said "You're a baby!" to my 1.5 year old daughter the other day when she tried to talk to it.


I definitely agree. I'd use it mostly for a bluetooth music streaming speaker. And for $99 (since I'm a prime member) it's a good price. All the other features are extra and I don't know which ones I'd end up actually using on a regular basis. But it would be cool to try out.


This was my train of thought as well, but it ended in me researching mini bluetooth speakers and buying one of those instead. The features enabled by Echo are kind of cool and all, but I don't think I'd use them at all and the security stuff is obviously enough of a concern to make me think twice. It wonder why they didn't try to add a wifi kill-switch kind of thing for the paranoid who would just use it for a blue-tooth speaker


there's a button on top to turn the listening feature off


Which actually activates the stream-to-NSA feature /paranoia.


You are trading your so far rarely touched privacy for solving minor first world annoyances.


Rarely touched privacy? If somebody wanted to spy on me, they could use the microphone in my phone or my laptop, right? I almost never turn either of those off. Bringing Echo into my home doesn't give the NSA new opportunities, my phone is always in my pocket anyway. If I'm worried enough about Echo to avoid buying it, I should also get a laptop without a webcam and get rid of my cell phone.


This is no more invasive than Ok Google and Hey Siri.


I think both of them don't need to send any data to the mothership and can process this phrase on device.

For instance, in airplane mode with no network access iPhone response to 'Hey Siri' is 'Siri is not available. Connect to internet'


It would be shocking if Echo doesn't work the same way, that would be an incredible waste of bandwidth and AWS CPU power otherwise.


Yes! And hopefully you aren't using them.


I certainly am not using OK Google, as shouting at my dashboard whilst driving makes for a frustrating driving experience. It just never hears what I say correctly.


>You are trading your so far rarely touched privacy

Prove it. Seriously, don't speculate like this until it's proven one way or the other. Prove that it violates my privacy and then we will talk.


You must be joking.

Why don't you "prove" that all the metadata is not used for commercial purposes, and that metadata isn't available to government agencies.


No, you must be joking. The burden of proof in an argument has to be borne by the one making the claim. If you claim you saw a UFO, the burden of proof is on you. The burden of proof does not fall on everyone else to prove that what you saw could NOT, in any way, shape, or form, possibly be a UFO.


It is established by now that various government agencies all over the world routinely monitor web traffic, tap phones and install trojans on computers. There is no doubt in my mind that an internet connected listening device would be exploited.


So smartphone, tablets, laptops are also exploited? They all have a microphone and they're never off.

I fail to see how this is any more a possible privacy breach than my iPhone that's laying right next to me right now.


The only difference I see is that the battery of a smartphone would drain rapidly if it was constantly recording and uploading the recordings to the cloud. But you are right, a smartphone is a device used to monitor you and people whose freedom depends on that knowledge, like radical political activists are aware of that. And yes laptops are exploited. To give an example: The German government has developed a number of trojans for Windows over the years and the BKA routinely uses them for targeted surveillance.


So what you're saying is that you don't have proof of your claims. Ok, got it.


That's not proof of my privacy being violated though.

The probability that my privacy was compromised by a mandatory court subpoena is very low, hence the person used "rarely touched privacy".

Premising your argument about government agencies all over the world is argumentum ad absurdum.


You are shifting the burden of proof.

You made the positive claim, you are the one who needs to provide evidence. Until you do, a rational mind is well justified in disbelieving your claim.


> it's a speaker with extra features. This is so true! Nice speaker with add-on capabilities, definitely a plus and will probably buy!


I attempted to start a positive comments thread earlier, yours seems to have done far better so I'm going to repost my thoughts here too:

I've requested an invite.

I see it as a replacement for the ditigal photoframe pc I built a few years back out of an old laptop and have in my kitchen. Its running XP with a heap of autoIT scripts I hacked together, controlled by an MCE remote. I use it every day to listen to news headlines and check the weather while making my morning coffee and for streaming jazz while cooking dinner.

I think I'd prefer asking Echo to play these things than going through the hassle of upgrading the photoframe pc from XP.

I'd gain some functions such as easier music streaming, shopping list stuff, etc. I'd lose a few functions; I occassionally use VNC on the photoframe pc to display a recipe or twitch stream. I can do the recipe on my phone and put the twitch stream on my TV and turn it so I can see it from the kitchen.


The idea of this sitting on my dining room table while eating with my family is horrifying.


I hope you don't put your phone on the table while eating with your family, or have it in your pocket at that time.


Nope. We have a family rule that dinner time is an electronics free zone.


Or in your pocket for that matter - yes, the acoustics are pretty much good enough to pick up everything you say.


actually, it doesn't have a battery, so it won't replace an ordinary bluetooth speaker. I was optimistic too :(


This "internet-of-things" trend coincides unfortunately with the "dragnet surveillance" trend. With every new product launch from a "cloud company," I increasingly feel as if I'm reading the tombstone of modern society. The selling point behind these devices is convenience, but at the cost of security. I don't think I need to explain to HN why an always-on, internet connected voice recording device is something to keep out of your house. [1]

Consumers are frighteningly amenable to reducing their security in favor of convenience. Often they are oblivious to the tradeoff altogether. Evidence of this trend has increased since 9/11, as increasingly paranoid legislation made its way through congress at the behest of corporate stakeholders. It should hardly be surprising that now, with the NSA privileged enough to be openly flaunting its surveillance, those same corporate stakeholders are investing in companies that sell listening devices to millions of Americans. I am making a paranoid argument, but it's not ungrounded, and certainly not surprising, because paranoia breeds paranoia. Pass paranoid legislation, face a paranoid populace. The American people are rightfully skeptical of their government.

Perhaps it sounds absurd to segment the world into the "populace" and "government," but did it sound absurd when you read those terms in high school history books? Over spans of centuries, politics is viewed in the same terms: the people, and the government. Maybe you and I do not think of ourselves in the context of centuries. But what about Barack Obama? Vladimir Putin? It seems logical to assume they see themselves in the context of world leaders past. Modern leaders occupy unprecedented seats of power over the largest populace ever. If they are internally comparing themselves to each other and their predecessors, then we have a problem. We cannot trust the world leaders, because they do not view themselves on the same level as us. Faced with an increasingly empowered and growing populace, they could react any way. We'll see.

(Yes, I'm trying to get on a list at the NSA. It's an experiment I'm doing. Hopefully I hit enough keywords today.)

[1] Yes, transmission is triggered on-chip, but who verifies every chip fabrication is performed using the same imprints? You think governments don't have factory floor managers in their pockets?


Most people don't care because they're not culpable enough to feel paranoid. Some percentage of people will be unjustly exploited, but probably not enough to offset the economic benefits that technology like this brings to its users.

I think your focus on 'the people vs the government' is misplaced, because government is just a sort of social technology which can be used and abused like any other technology depending on who controls it at the time. What about Barack Obama, for example? Do you seriously think he will refuse to relinquish power in 2 years? You probably don't, just' just expressing your cynical (and entirely justifiable) opinion about the political class. But that's not much different from a Marxist asserting that business is fundamentally antagonistic towards workers or similar monolithic abstractions. When you make arguments like this you've opted for ideology over empiricism.

Bringing it back to technology, certainly the ubiquity of digital technology makes it easier to establish mass surveillance of a kind that would have seemed nightmarish a few generations ago. But the same technology has also facilitated a significant number of populist uprisings in recent years, and made it far easier for marginalized communities to get their message out in relatively short order, as well as facilitating organizations with both benign and malicious intentions (eg MSF and ISIS, who both leverage social media but for wildly divergent ends).

The internet of things isn't 'coinciding with the dragnet surveillance trend'; the latter is an emerging property of our increasingly networked society. When we use metaphors like a 'world wide web' traversed by 'spiders' and so on, we should not be surprised that such technologies are going to amplify the capabilities of institutional actors in at least the same proportion that they amplify the capabilities of individuals.


> Most people don't care because they're not culpable enough to feel paranoid.

Maybe you didn't mean it literally but it's a popular expression in this context. I don't think a desire for privacy is paranoid; it is normal, healthy behavior.

But to address the gist of what you say, I think you assume an understanding of data security that is far beyond most end users. How many even know what "metadata" means, or how 'cloud' computing actually works? Go down to the mall (assuming you are not in a tech hub) and ask. On top of that, they would need to understand the confidentiality implications of the system, and then the political, social and other implications of confidentiality.

The public is not able to make an informed decision, and government and industry are taking advantage of that:

If people don't mind, why are so many of these practices kept secret or obscure?


I'm not saying a desire for privacy is paranoid, but the assumption that the government will engage in passive monitoring and archival of everything that can be captured through the microphone and use it as leverage later, even if it doesn't involve criminal liability, eg 'assist us without nefarious purpose or we will use something we recorded to cause you acute embarrassment with devastating social consequences.' I'm not saying this won't happen, but that it won't happen enough for most people to care.

But to address the gist of what you say, I think you assume an understanding of data security that is far beyond most end users.

I don't think I do. I've met plenty of non-technical people who worry about the possibility that their phone could record them when its swtiched off or suchlike - you don't need to understand how something functions in order to understand its potential as an instrumentality. But unless you have a fundamentally antagonist view of government (which most people in the US don't) then there's little overlap between the set of 'stuff the government could do me' and that of 'stuff that would advance the government's purpose' for the average person. This is what I mean when I say most people don't feel culpable enough; there isn't anything sufficiently illegal going on in their lives that they perceive a significant government interest in intruding upon them in the first place.

When I talk about paranoia I mean the idea that government is going to fuck with you no matter how blameless of a life you lead, and that the more blameless you are the less leverage you will have to push back against the inevitable intrusion. In other words, they overestimate the probability of oppression just as optimistic or authoritarian people may underestimate it, depending on context. While that possibility certainly exists, I think something like this Amazon product only marginally increases it because anyone who buys this probably already has a smartphone and keeps it close by at all times already.


> This is what I mean when I say most people don't feel culpable enough; there isn't anything sufficiently illegal going on in their lives that they perceive a significant government interest in intruding upon them in the first place.

I hear this refutation quite often. I find it typically comes from people in a place of privilege that the system largely ignores. I've read far too many accounts from people who are not Caucasian or are Muslim to believe that innocent people are not the targets of mass surveillance and do not notice its effects.


You're making my point for me. The system largely ignores a large majority of the people, who therefore don't care much about this issue to feel deterred from buying the relevant technology. Hence the enormous popularity of smartphones with GPS functionality and so forth: never getting lost >> government tracking everywhere you go, for most people.


The system isn't designed to watch everyone.

It's designed to watch anyone.


The technical apparatus is designed to watch everyone.

The legal apparatus is designed to watch anyone.


> The system largely ignores a large majority of the people

Have you been under a rock the last few years?


"the more blameless you are the less leverage you will have to push back against the inevitable intrusion"

That's really well put. People seem to miss the fact that in a surveillance society it's not necessarily your privacy that you will most regret losing, it's the privacy of those groups you agree with who are opposed to some powerful faction.


>But unless you have a fundamentally antagonist view of government (which most people in the US don't)

Speaking of empiricism, there's abundant evidence that your statement is incorrect:

http://www.pewresearch.org/key-data-points/views-of-governme... (and this one was before Snowden!) http://www.thenewamerican.com/usnews/politics/item/18188-pol...


>I don't think a desire for privacy is paranoid; it is normal, healthy behavior.

We on Hacker News spend our free time criticizing anyone we perceive as complicit in surveillance, bemoaning centralization, and championing Bitcoin and Uber for disrupting authority. To HN, a desire for privacy is literally normal: it is a social norm of this community.

That doesn't mean that people outside this community do (or should) care nearly as much as we do.


Keep in mind, within this community, there is a large portion of developers, and thus, more likely than the average person to be able to affect positive change through their work / side-projects. As such, it's a critical issue that I think HN is smart to not shy away from. The same systems that can gamify an action can be used oppressively. Thus, one has a varying degree of personal responsibility to what one builds or contributes to.


>That doesn't mean that people outside this community do (or should) care nearly as much as we do.

Part of the reason we care more is because we understand more.

But, in general, I think there is not nearly enough emphasis put on what's right vs. what people care about. That is, the former doesn't dictate the latter.


> I don't think a desire for privacy is paranoid; it is normal, healthy behavior.

I think it's healthy to choose how private you keep each aspect of your personal life. I make tradeoffs all the time. When I think that sharing some aspect of my personal life (whether with an individual or an organization) will give me more benefit than the cost of losing that privacy, I'll do it.


A normal, healthy behavior is to be aware of what the devices you own are capable of.

Insane paranoia is hearing "cloud-based audio processing device and service" and instantly jumping to "the NSA" absent a single damned fact to support that conclusion.

Downvotes don't make me wrong or you right.


Insane paranoia is hearing "cloud-based audio processing device and service" and instantly jumping to "the NSA" absent a single damned fact to support that conclusion.

Cell phones are routinely used as listening devices, what makes you think this device would not be? If I were a government agency intent on omniscience (i.e. the NSA), this device, along with televisions and computers with always-on microphones controlled remotely, would be a very welcome development - all it takes is one secret order to the company concerned, with a warrant covering the entire country, and their entire product line is useful for surveillance on demand.

Given the world we live in, where GCHQ for example claims the right to capture all information, including privileged communications between lawyer and client, wondering about how our devices protect against government intrusion is not insane paranoia at all.


Yeah, but if anyone caught wind of it there would be hell to pay wouldn't there? You'd need some sort of secret court so that you could control exactly who has knowledge of what's going on and effectively subvert democracy. Good luck with that. You'd have to be pretty paranoid to believe the US would allow that kind of back room governing to go on.


You forgot your irony tags...


>Cell phones are routinely used as listening devices //

Citation? I'm really interested, presumably there's a hacker convention talk or somesuch where they install a hidden service on a standard phone and upload all voice input even when the phone is off?

Clearly I use burner non-smart phones for my criminal activities (that's a joke!) so they're going to have to use other means. Obviously they can still sniff the data at the operator for phone calls.


It's an interesting video for other reasons, but at 1:47 here Binney mentions it:

http://www.nytimes.com/video/opinion/100000001733041/the-pro...

Here's another article about real-world use:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/3522137.stm


Daniel Ellsberg [Pentagon Papers whistle-blower]: "Somebody told me that they can listen to what we're saying by my having this cellphone {waves what looks like iPhone} even though it's turned off."

William Binney [ex-NSA]: "Yes. [... goes off on a tangent about data analysis]

He doesn't really mention it. Indeed the vid is considering electronic communications and information which is put in to the public sphere. Other than that one question which Binney responds to only with "Yes" there's no other mention of private audio being covertly sniffed.

The BBC article is very sparse and jumps from being able to eavesdrop mobile->basestation and decrypt that to being able to listen in on all conversations within range of a phone. Clearly ludicrous.

I don't at all doubt that phones can be modified remotely to covertly listen and that some phones could enable this when switched off (though that seems unlikely to meet with normal design requirements, it seems that this covert listening would need to be designed in). I guess maybe you could make "off" only appear to be off whilst listening - my phone gets hot when doing anything extended like recording a talk or something and drains the battery quite a lot - even with the screen off. Seems that using this sort of surveillance on a widescale is highly unlikely.

>"all it takes is one secret order to the company concerned, with a warrant covering the entire country, and their entire product line is useful for surveillance on demand" [grey-area, https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=8569217]

Only, IMO, if it's already been designed in and you can hide the power usage (and data-store usage).

Anything better?


Only, IMO, if it's already been designed in and you can hide the power usage (and data-store usage).

That quote was about this Amazon device anyway, which doesn't have power usage or data usage requirements that would be noticed by the average user if recording was only for significant audio. You've jumped from there to cell phones.

The access is blanket given warrants like the FISA verizon one, and there's nothing to stop targeted surveillance like that which we know goes on on gmail/skype/etc accounts when requested. To be clear, I'm not suggesting that cell phones or this device are all constantly recording what we do and transmitting direct to the NSA right now, but that they could in a targeted manner be used to do so if someone became of interest, and that this Amazon device would be a particularly powerful bug given the great microphones, constant power and fixed location in a home.

Re cell phones, I don't think it would be very hard to present a blank screen and wake up only on significant audio to record/broadcast on a hacked phone. I'm sure a paranoid user would eventually notice, but the capability is certainly there - probably that sort of thing is very rare and sophisticated, it's not something I worry about personally, but I do think it is quite possible. If you control the software on the device, I don't see why it seems impossible to you that you'd be able to control the phone completely and use it as an audio bug (except when battery removed etc). You wouldn't even have to rely on faking switch-off - the majority of people leave their phone on and carry it around.

Anything better?

Well, I'm inclined to believe Binney (and others) when they explicitly say cellphones are used as bugs, but here's another example for you of actual use, they are not hard to find:

http://news.cnet.com/FBI-taps-cell-phone-mic-as-eavesdroppin...


I'm not suggesting that cell phones or this device are all constantly recording what we do and transmitting direct to the NSA right now

Thank you for the clarification, and I apologize if my tone earlier was excessively acerbic - the angle you just mentioned appears to be an undertone surrounding this discussion.

but that they could in a targeted manner be used to do so if someone became of interest

Here's where we diverge: This is an argument that can be applied to any internet-connected device, anywhere, anytime. We're dealing with a group of people that have proven themselves adept at twisting a device's programming to their own ends.

So: Why is this so special? Why are so many people sitting here in this thread slagging on this particular internet-connected mic when most of us carry one with us and work in front of one every single day?

I'm sure I'm not alone in growing weary of hearing the constant "NSA!!" bogeyman brought up anytime a new device featuring a microphone comes out. There's no new information here, no interesting discussion, just the same usual "X might do Y" scaremongering. With the previous paragraph in mind, these concerns ring hypocritical in addition to just hollow.


> Most people don't care because they're not culpable enough to feel paranoid.

It's going to take a high-profile case to show people how wrong this is. Wait for it.

Here's some potential scenarios:

* An author who is researching dangerous-sounding stuff and discussing it with his friends for a book is SWAT teamed and shot dead. Later investigation reveals overzealous "parallel construction."

* Someone at one of these companies is busted insider trading on information from these sources. Surveillance targets include lawyers, CXO-level personnel, etc.

* Creepy misogynistic black-hat hackers break into the network behind one of these devices and start using it to engage in cyber-stalking against women and record their sexual encounters, posting the results to 4chan and Reddit.

* HIPAA or other similar regulations are spectacularly violated, resulting in large cash damages.

* Someone is busted pwning the "cloud-enhanced Internet of things" (surveillance) devices of police officers and selling feeds to drug traffickers and the mob.

... I could keep going.


Shit like this happens already and slightly less probable stuff is regularly dramatized on TV in mystery/suspense shows. Not only do many people not care as long as it happens to someone else, a sizable percentage of them derive entertainment from it (eg see news stories on people who commit suicide in response to internet bullying or similar).

It's very unlikely that there would be a single turning point case a la Pearl Harbor or 9-11. More likely it's an aggregation of small cases followed by slow adjustments in a different direction. As an example of the latter, consider how incarceration seems to have peaked in the US and we're seeing the beginnings of a fall as well as a shift away from incarceration as the default response. I would predict the fraction of the population that is incarcerated to fall by 10% in 10 years and by 50% in 25 years. Likewise we're seeing pushback against the militarization of police, but how that particular pendulum swings is going to be measured out over budgetary cycles rather than in real time. I think that if you were to plot utility vs security on a graph you'd see a random walk of incremental fluctuating changes rather than massive discontinuities.


Why can't privacy be enough reason by itself? There are plenty of legal things I want to keep private. The government does not need to have record of every little thing about me. Some things are personal.


I wish. I really wish people cared.


I disagree; I think most people desire privacy. It's just that the speed of technology change has been faster than social awareness.

For instance, most people understand cameras - they've been around since birth. And, most would be uncomfortable if there was a visible camera on every surface, pointed at them. There's an understanding that there's a 'watcher' at the other end of that picture or video. In fact, as cameras emerged, some cultures rejected them as a technology that could 'steal the soul'.

But, today, most people don't understand the 'sensors' that are everywhere, tracking their behavior. Not only are the sensors invisible, they're not something that most people are even aware of or understand. Many of us are in this business, and I'd suggest that most of us aren't even aware of all of them.

These sensors are similarly 'stealing our souls', but we don't even know that it's happening.


the economic benefits that technology like this brings to its users

What economical benefit is this thing bringing its users


Whatever utility they find in it. Economic benefit doesn't necessarily mean you find cash in your mailbox, it could be something that saves you a few minutes every day or improves your productivity by simply making you feel good.


> When you make arguments like this you've opted for ideology over empiricism.

Empiricism _is_ an ideology. People seem to forget that around here.


Privacy is different than culpability.

Just because I can legally have sex with my wife doesn't mean I want the government to have a recording of it. Some things are meant to stay private.


Then you shouldn't buy this thing, or if you do be very careful about how you use it - including distinguishing between what the government has a recording of and what Amazon has a recording of (I rather doubt you are cool with your sex life providing entertainment for Amazon employees either, right)?

The point I'm making, though, is not what level of privacy you should be happy with (a decision only you can make), but how people in the aggregate make decisions about using technology that could have privacy implications - and my theory is that most people don't care.


I was merely responding to this singular point:

"Most people don't care [about privacy] because they're not culpable enough to feel paranoid."

Let be honest, I don't have a sex life.


> Yes, transmission is triggered on-chip, but who verifies every chip fabrication is performed using the same imprints? You think governments don't have factory floor managers in their pockets?

If you're willing to accept changed chip silicon as a possible attack vector, then you need to start worrying about a rather large set of devices. Your laptop is internet connected and has a microphone. So is your phone. Your TV is probably internet connected, and if you're fiddling with the production line, why not add a tiny microphone? I could go on.

An attacker with a good budget, influence and capability like the NSA is always going to be able to snoop on an individual if the requirement is strong enough. Some hardware limitations probably set the bar high enough that you don't need to worry unless you're an international terrorist.


Fine, but just because someone could bulldoze my house doesn't mean I don't lock the door. Just because I could have a heart attack doesn't mean I don't use condoms. And so on.

> you don't need to worry unless you're an international terrorist.

Or a person with a conscience who could be threat to people in power without one. For some reason I doubt that, say, people involved in extra-judicial killings, are really worried about being caught. At least one of them is known by name and proud holder of a peace nobel prize. So I'd say if you are a heavyweight criminal already on the payroll, you have nothing to fear period. Small fish and decent people, on the other hand, well. Do you think people like Poitras or Appelbaum don't get snooped on? Would you call them international terrorists? All sorts of activist groups get monitored, and no, it's not because they're all terrorists in spe. You may believe that, I don't buy it for one second.

> Your laptop is internet connected and has a microphone. So is your phone. Your TV is probably internet connected, and if you're fiddling with the production line, why not add a tiny microphone? I could go on.

Don't have a laptop, if I did, killing the crappy microphone in it would be trivial and not a big loss since when I use a mic, it's one I connect manually. Don't have a smartphone, though I doubt that matters; but my phone doesn't have 7 microphones in it, and I doubt you could record anything useful with it while I have it in my pocket. Last time I had a TV was in the 90s. So maybe actually do go on?

And even if none of that was true, I don't see how it constitutes an argument; as I said, it's a bit like saying I shouldn't worry about the poison I just ate because I also have cancer. How about I worry about, and try to undo, both? I don't care about chance of success either, I can still get washed downstream when I am a dead fish, there will always be infinite time for that.


Exactly. Or, just good old fashion spy mics and cameras, perhaps placed by police, NSA, or anyone who has been shopping at the Spy Shop.


The troubling thing is it's incredibly cheap to spy on someone now. The resources necessary are not acting as a natural balancing point to prevent overreaching government.

In the past, you used to have to have physical access to the location to install the device. You also needed a listening post close by and a power source to hook the device into, if you wanted long term monitoring.

After you install the listening device, you needed to pay someone to listen to the conversations for hours and take note of anything that needed closer analysis.

All of that is incredibly expensive and difficult to scale.

Now, the device is already installed in the home or carried around on the person (via smartphone). The target takes care of charging the device for you and the information is transmitted across the country via internet connection. Massive computer networks process the data and flag the important parts of conversations.

The cheaper and more automated spying gets, the easier and more indiscriminately it can be done. Criteria for snooping drops because it's so dramatically cheap, the resources are no longer a bottleneck.


The scary part is that you can't protect yourself easily from those around you. For example, let's say you like to maintain your privacy, and you're careful about anything you post online, you're careful not to have an always on microphone, such as the Echo, you're careful not to have a smart television with a video camera connected to the internet in your living room, etc. That's great, and up to you to decide, but what about your friends house?

I mean, when you visit your friend, stop at a girlfriends apartment, or hang out with people at the pub, are you checking if they have any of these devices? Do you search their shelves for an Echo? Do you ask everyone at the restaurant if they have a smartphone with a microphone connected to the internet?

It's impossible to avoid things like this in your life. The second you walk outside, you're surrounded by cameras and microphones that can be streaming anything, to anyone.

Facebook is another example. You might say, I don't want to enter where I live, or where I went to school, I feel that's sensitive information. Well, since you refuse to give up that information, Facebook just encourages your friends to squeal. Hey, does John Doe live in X or Y city? Did you go to university with John Doe? Hey, why don't you upload more photos of John Doe, and tell us the time and location that photo was taken. Actually, no need to tag him, we'll just detect his face, and use the date the photo was created.

It's not going to be long until you can search a person, and see a timeline of their life based on data from third parties. Let's watch John Doe's life for 2018. Oh look, Jan 15, he appears in the background of a tourists photo by the Eiffel tower. Jan 21st, we detected is face on the metro in southern France. Oh, Jan 28th, a car dash cam finds him walking down a street in Italy. Oh, his phone was on and we can see he was in Jane's apartment Feb 1st. Let's pull the audio from the microphone on Jane's television for that day.


> Eiffel tower (...) southern France (...) Italy

You have an excellent comment, but you fail at ponting at how this info may be used against you and providing usecases. Should sound like: "On Feb 1st your car is recorded on the leftish party's parking lot" "On Feb 2nd you are arrested in person at a friend's place for the speed excess of Jan 26th. Police automatically suponead your network's Echos".


I'm not concerned about it being used against me. Like most people, I'm not going around committing crimes on a daily basis or trying to hide nuclear launch codes. I just like to have a right to some privacy in my daily life, and I don't think every detail needs to be logged and available to the world.


How about all those bizarre or misapplied laws you could be violating if just someone knew you had done it. With pervasive monitoring, the uncommon-but-horrifying could become more commonplace: http://kottke.org/13/06/you-commit-three-felonies-a-day

What you do can be construed as criminal if the prosecutor is interested enough.


> The selling point behind these devices is convenience, but at the cost of security. I don't think I need to explain to HN why an always-on, internet connected voice recording device is something to keep out of your house.

Do you have any computers in your house? A TV made in the last few years? A smartphone?


> > The selling point behind these devices is convenience, but at the cost of security. I don't think I need to explain to HN why an always-on, internet connected voice recording device is something to keep out of your house.

> Do you have any computers in your house? A TV made in the last few years? A smartphone?

Neither the first nor the last of those is necessarily always on or Internet connected. (For example, I have both of them, and, with brief exceptions, neither is Internet connected while in my house.)


Following that logic, you CAN turn off the echo, it's got what looks like mute and power buttons right on top.


The question for the paranoid is whether it (the Echo) is useful enough while not connected to the Internet. (I think it's too much to expect any device to be particularly useful while off. :-) ) At least some commenters seem to think so—https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=8568572, for example.

(Also, to be fair to chatmasta (https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=8568265), I think that s/he was suggesting that the Internet connection / voice-recording function is on whenever the device is, not that the device itself can never be turned off.)


“Edison, an off switch!”

“She’ll get years for that. Off switches are illegal.”

Max Headroom, season 1, episode 6: “The Blanks”, 1987


It has a mic mute button, but not a power switch.


So what's the second button then?


In yet another layer of brilliance in the incredibly creepy promo movie, the family name their Echo "Alexa", which just happens to be the name of an Amazon-owned tracking company and purveyor of toolbars.


I don't how much different the echo is compared to a cell phone microphone, which has been around for quite a while, have been designed for hands free conversations and have had modes to activate the microphone when not in a call for quite a while.

The echo has a better mic and is guaranteed to not be in a pocket, but that isn't the multiple order of magnitude difference that the cell phone has brought to dragnet surveillance.


> Yes, I'm trying to get on a list at the NSA

I have a running joke about this with my mom. The particular list that people like you and me get put on is called the "patriot file." Fortunately, it's way too big of a list for them to follow up on thoroughly, so if your phone conversation (or comment) ends up there, you're really OK.


> too big of a list for them to follow up on thoroughly

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Utah_Data_Center

Define "thoroughly."


Even the NSA has to deal with Huxley.


I get your point, but on the topic of paranoia breeding paranoia, (1) I'm not sure if there is really a causal relationship there, and (2) the government's paranoia a fear of alleged domestic and foreign threats to our safety, well-being, way of life, etc. while the people's paranoia is that the NSA knows what I ate for breakfast.

Despite whether either threat is real or not, I'm less concerned about my facebook privacy being violated and more concerned with foreign and domestic threats of violence.

I have a choice not to use facebook or amazon echo, or whatever. Problem solved on that front. I don't have a choice if somebody wants to fly a plane into dense metro areas with the goal of killing as many people as possible.

Are you telling me that you feel amazon echo is a larger potential threat to your security than alleged terrorist organizations?


the government's paranoia a fear of alleged domestic and foreign threats to our safety, well-being, way of life, etc.

Ostensibly. In real life these powers have been used for all sorts of activities outside this sort of apparently existential threat - for example spying on lawyers in civil rights cases. It's not clear they are useful against well-organised terror, that terror is actually the existential threat you seem to think it is, or that any usefulness outweighs their dramatic effect on our civil society.

Your fear of the extremely unlikely event of you being killed in a terror attack is being used to blind you to the other consequences of surveillance.

while the people's paranoia is that the NSA knows what I ate for breakfast.

False. The people's paranoia is that these powers will be used to spy on innocents who are rightly or wrongly suspected of any sort of wrongdoing, collect their communications with their politicians, lawyers, and accountants, and undermine the very democracy and open society spy agencies claim to be defending.

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/nov/06/intelligence-ag...

You don't have a choice about this, it's already happening, with or without your consent, because our spy agencies are determined to dominate every aspect of your digital life.


Well you might as well go off the grid completely then, don't use anything that could be used to track you like phones, tablets, laptops, stay away from people in general because you never know who the spies are that are trying to catch you. Don't use credit cards, debit cards, etc. Don't keep your money in banks. In fact probably don't even keep currency, buy gold instead. But you won't need that either because the only way for you to be truly safe is to live the jungle and live off the land....until the spies come for you there too. ......or, you could realize that probably NOT everyone is trying to achieve world domination and enslave all of humanity, starting by spying on you with amazon echo.


If I might suggest an alternative strategy - use tech while being cognisant of its potential for tracking individual lives retrospectively down to a microscopic quotidian level, and oppose the misuse of tech to track populations en masse, by corporations or governments, it's not very hard and it doesn't mean becoming a hermit. As an example of how this device might be misused -

Amazon, get me all the queries from the leeber household for the last 25 years containing the word 'drugs' or 'taxes' - perhaps you are the ex-girlfriend or potential partner of someone at the NSA, perhaps you just annoyed someone with access or got in the way of a project they think is vital for their org.

Amazon, please commence recording all audio activity on the leeber household device, using this handy secret global warrant from the FISA court, you don't need to know why, just that I ticked the box saying it is necessary for an ongoing investigation.

As for Amazon the corporation, this device would put you very much in their hands when you want to know anything about the world, be it about media, products or news, in the same way that relying exclusively on google search does for google. I imagine their motivation is having a huge amount of customer data about trending devices/brands/news etc in order to sell things to you better. Perhaps you'd be happy in the warm, smothering embrace of Amazon corp, but I prefer to limit my exposure to corps to small doses, and ideally not to ones which want to sell me everything I ever wanted, along with a few things I didn't know I wanted.

As for NOT everyone is...trying to enslave all humanity etc, your arguments would have more force if you resisted wrestling with tinfoil men of your own invention and talked about what is government agencies and corps actually do in the real world, instead of credulously repeating their excuses for working towards global realtime surveillance of all communications.


I wrote a really long ass post about how naive your line of thinking is, but I decided against posting it.

Do yourself a huge favor and pick a god damn book. I suggest 1984 by George Orwell.


Yah to be honest it seems a bit of creepy. I doubt they need factory floor managers, I'm sure their is a backdoor so they can fulfil their legally required handing over of data to requests by the american govenment. But as a non-american, thats not really a good thing that the american govenment can do that. I dont see Angela Merkel picking one up.


"Alexa, how do you make a bomb?"


That'll get you on a lost fairly quickly.


Too late. You probably already have a cell phone and probably already carry it with you most of the time.


Same with the microphones on your computer, external monitor, tablet, and soon smartwatch.

To be effectively paranoid like the grandparent commenter, one would have to opt out of a _lot_ of convenience. If you're actually a person of interest to the point of being surveilled with an Echo, you'll be surveilled with all your other digital devices as well.

Hell - the Echo would be incredibly limited relative to those other devices. It only captures specific rooms in your home. Those other devices follow you throughout the day.


But that's not constantly transmitting my voice to the internet without my knowledge unless I'm being specifically targetted.

I wouldn't put something like the Echo in my house. Similarly, my Smart TV isn't connected to the internet. But I'm not afraid of carrying a smart phone with me wherever I go.

Two completely different things in my opinion. One requires specific targeting (which I'm OK with to a point), and the other can be collected with a dragnet.


Sorry, the "wake word" makes the Echo a little less suspicious in my opinion, but it's still something I'd avoid.


Yes, transmission is triggered on-chip

That's irrelevant. That's merely one of the possibly ways that triggers transmission, but not necessarily the only way. Do we know that remote triggering over the network (perhaps implemented for testing) isn't possible?


Sorry to disappoint, that's not how keywords work for NSA stuff. Now the DHS and FBI, that's a different story.


Do they coincide unfortunately, or are they actually kind of the _same thing_? I'm not sure.


>I don't think I need to explain to HN why an always-on, internet connected voice recording device is something to keep out of your house. [1]

You just described many peoples computers


"You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it." - Scott McNealy


I feel the general the fear about "dragnet surveillance" is misplaced and uncalled for. As long as you haven't done anything wrong, hearing your conversations should be a total waste of time for whoever made the effort to do so. There are 100 million+ people in America, don't think people from NSA will waste their time on going over family conversations of every family.


The whole basis of rights is to protect YOU if THEY are wrong.

http://chronicle.com/article/Why-Privacy-Matters-Even-if/127...

What if the government mistakenly determines that based on your pattern of activities, you're likely to engage in a criminal act? What if it denies you the right to fly? What if the government thinks your financial transactions look odd—even if you've done nothing wrong—and freezes your accounts? What if the government doesn't protect your information with adequate security, and an identity thief obtains it and uses it to defraud you? Even if you have nothing to hide, the government can cause you a lot of harm.


Cannot upvote enough.

Is there a good book or site with a nice list of scenarios that don't involve an evil government and a heroic anti-conformist fighting the system, that show that a mass surveillance system can do already enough harm because of factors that can be explained by Hanlon's razor alone?

Btw, the freezing of bank accounts happened to me once in Italy, curtesy of my bank and theoir automatic implementations of anti money laundering laws; promptly sorted out after calling in in the bank, but I was actually quite annoyed that I had to let people see me give fail to complete the ATM transaction at a till. Call it first world problem, but I think there should be more transparency with these things, at least they should notify people when they block accounts.


It doesn't matter if you have nothing to hide. Other people do. Many of those people represent you in various official capacities, and you don't want them being coerced. Maybe some of your friends and family members have something to hide.

Also, I find it very difficult to relate to the whole, "I have nothing to hide, so fuck all the other people who do," attitude that many people seem to have.


What you're missing is that people who don't have anything to hide don't want to be forced to adopt hiding practices, even though that might benefit other people. The choice to give away privacy in return for convenience is as much a feature of liberty as the choice to do the opposite, notwithstanding the disutility for a minority that can arise as a result of network effects.


I'm not missing anything. I understand that point entirely:

"Doing X benefits me. Sod everyone else"

I am fully aware of this attitude that many people seem to have.


Seems like lot of people dislike my view of things but each person is entitled to his view. Don't think it deserved so many downvotes. > What if the government mistakenly determines that based on your pattern of activities, you're likely to engage in a criminal act? What if it denies you the right to fly? What if the government thinks your financial transactions look odd—even if you've done nothing wrong—and freezes your accounts? - Being a CS grad student, I can say when people build models for these things - they are uber careful. Again i would term this a pessimistic view of world. They might interrogate you but the chance of this is 1 in million. They will not just cut you out like you describe.

> What if the government doesn't protect your information with adequate security, and an identity thief obtains it and uses it to defraud you? Even if you have nothing to hide, the government can cause you a lot of harm. It comes down to whether you trust your government. The government is here to protect its people, not screw them up.


There are also 100k+ contractors employed by the NSA and other intelligence agencies. Each one knows hundreds of people, a few of whom might be love interests or otherwise. The Snowden documents demonstrated that querying the database, given only a first and last name, requires very few credentials.


Wow, I wish I lived in a world where 'wrong' was well defined and eternally, universally recognised.

But I don't.

Neither do you.


Post your browsing history for the last month / 30 days. I cannot explain why I must have this data, but I must have it. It will keep everyone safe. You have not done anything wrong, that is why you have no reason to not immediately produce said browsing history.


I'm surprised by the privacy backlash in this thread! I understand why this product is so scary for someone who is concerned about privacy, but how is this that much worse than all the other devices you use?

You carry a smart-phone that presumably has GPS, a microphone, and a camera everywhere you go. There's a camera and microphone on your laptop too. Both are cloud connected. If the NSA (or any other super-power) wants to spy on you, they can and will. I believe we've learned that if nothing else w/ all of Snowden's revelations.

IMO if you detest this device's privacy it can only because either: A) You take your privacy VERY seriously, to the point you avoid most mainstream technology and exclusively use burner feature-phones and Tor B) You trust Amazon less than you trust Google, Apple, or others.

I am going to assume it's more the latter than the former. (If not, you really do not represent the mainstream and this audience isn't what I expected).

So assuming B, question for you: why don't you trust Amazon? I actually trust Amazon more than I trust Google or Apple. They have always delivered for me as a customer, and I believe they've always put me first.

*Edited to correct former/latter reversal.


I am not really worried about privacy, but this smacks of false equivalency.

> You carry a smart-phone that presumably has GPS, a microphone, and a camera everywhere you go. There's a camera and microphone on your laptop too. Both are cloud connected. If the NSA (or any other super-power) wants to spy on you, they can and will.

People are regularly discovering and shaming companies for transmitting more information than necessary from smart phones. It's true that the NSA could zero-day your phone, but you've still got opportunities to detect or react to that. If nothing else, put your phone in airplane mode.

This device, on the other hand, is designed to transmit everything it hears. There is no way to tell where that data goes and it may be difficult to determine exactly what it contains. Where it's possible to determine if your phone is sending unauthorized data, it seems very hard in this situation.

I don't trust amazon more or less than anyone else. I think we should just be honest about the nature of a device. A phone has an "offline" mode, this does not - its whole purpose is to be an omnipresent microphone. Those are two fundamentally different things.


>This device is designed to transmit everything it hears. There is no way to tell where that data goes and it may be difficult to determine exactly what it contains. Where it's possible to determine if your phone is sending unauthorized data.

Not necessarily true, a catch phrase programmed on-board is used to activate the device. If the device was constantly transmitting voice data to Amazon I would have to guess that the leakage of data would be picked up and could be exposed. I still don't think the smart phone analogy is dissimilar, if not worse than the Echo in terms of the privacy implications. What if a catch phrase was programmed into your phone (for instance a list of words a 'terrorist' might use), and it only sent recorded/geo/image/contact information for a short time after it was used? I don't think that would be an easy privacy compromise to spot if you didn't know the catch phrase. Not to mention that many people's smartphones are constantly transmitting location data to Google, without complaint.


As long as your phone's on, it can store whatever data it wants locally and shoot it off to Google/Apple/wherever so they can accomplish their nefarious purposes the next time it connects to the internet. If you're not extremely uncomfortable with the idea of a megacorporation leveraging your cellphone to gather info about you, you should also not be uncomfortable with Echo -- it can't do anything your phone can't already do.


Conversely, consumers can and do watch the data leaving such devices.

The open-sourciness (while not complete) also eludes to what is being stored and shipped to these "megacorps" who have "nefarious" purposes.

I would be more worried about a small third-party flashlight app dev selling your ocntact list and gps history, as opposed to a company with a billion active users.


> why don't you trust Amazon

I think you're asking the wrong question. It's about the company's motivation.

Google makes money from your data, and by showing you ads. Amazon makes money by creating services and devices that sell you products. Apple makes money just by selling you services and devices.

Looked at this way, I certainly trust Apple more than Google or Amazon, and this is borne out by Apple's recent "A message from Tim Cook". http://www.apple.com/privacy/


Yes, this. My gripe is not privacy-related. It's that we've built an entire society that puts things to spend money on in my face, and studies me to better learn how to do that. Google and Amazon are both problematic in this regard.

It takes most people aback when I say that Facebook is probably a much richer intelligence agency than the NSA. And people offer that information to them. Data is far too valuable and it creates the wrong incentives throughout life.


I do have control over my laptop, the NSA or Amazon would have to actively hack me in order go get to that mic and luckily I'm not worth it anyways.

In order for someone (the NSA?) to track a phone and do whatever they need to do, they need to have a warrant and what-not.

That's like deliberately sending all your living-room conversations (yours and your family's) online for analysis for God-knows-what purpose.

You trust Amazon that's good for you then. I don't trust anybody with admittedly uncontrolled access to all table conversations my family will have in the future.


There are two basic ways for the NSA to snoop on you using this device.

1. Listen to the internet traffic

2. Install malware to listen to everything

For #1, the Echo only sends conversations preceded by it's keyword. But since the alternatives to the commands you're telling Echo involve the internet anyways, what's the difference? IOW, asking echo for the weather sends the same basic information to the NSA that pulling up the weather app on your phone does.

If the NSA is going to do #2, they're going to do it to the phone in your pocket rather then targeting a niche device like the Echo.


3. Modify the hardware at the manufacturer to make it easier to snoop on without the user being aware.[1]

[1] http://www.infoworld.com/article/2608141/internet-privacy/sn...


Doing 2 on a smartphone feels like it would be something which would start draining battery really quick which would be a giveaway.

With this it's running on mains, it could upload in the middle of the night when it would probably be undetected

Plus, why do one or the other? Sure you want to get someone's phone but why not another device too?


Modern smartphones are always listening for "siri" or "ok google", and are regularly sending keep-alive packets, so I doubt that the battery drain for spying would be significantly noticeable, if done properly.

> why do one or the other?

Because resources are limited, even at government agencies. Effort spent hacking a device that will probably sell in the tens of thousands when they could be targeting devices that sell in the hundreds of millions just seems silly.


I agree that hacking the Echo might be pointless because it won't sell many is reasonable but that's a somewhat different argument.

Still, personally if I had concerns about privacy and secrecy I'd be looking to limit the number of devices in my own home which had an always active microphone.


Intel vPro chips have a VNC server built right into the chip, you can VNC in without the need for there to even be an OS installed. It would be very easy to hide a backdoor in one the hundreds of chips stashed in your laptop.


> but how is this that much worse than all the other devices you use?

Because the other devices I have have useful purposes besides listening to my speech for sales and advertising purposes. The Echo exists solely for that. It's all it does.


But does that matter? Just because your laptop can also play games/movies/etc. doesn't prevent the NSA or whoever else from tapping into the mic or camera.


Sure, they can. But they at least gives me a reason to own them. This has no reason for me to own besides getting spied on.


this requires additional software to do so. Tapping into a device that essentially already does those things maybe easier?


While most of the posts are, and probably should be, concerned with the privacy implications of this device if/when it reaches peoples' homes, I also wonder the plain-old "will this flop?" Adding voice recognition to things isn't a new idea, and the threshold for when it's "good enough" for the general populace for any use case is pretty poorly understood and/or quantified. Is this a use case people would be interested in transitioning to? Is this much better than just having a really good smartphone with voice recognition that's connected to speakers in the house? Will this get some success this holiday season? (If it won't come out of "invite-only" mode until after the holidays, will it see some success afterwards?)

Hard to say for me, but I feel like I can understand why Amazon wanted to try this out. In the worst case, it'll go the way of the fire phone and facebook phone and we'll forget in a year that this existed. At best, it finds its way to millions of homes and Amazon will have some epic access to peoples' lives.


i think you're underestimating how deeply entrenched 'surveillance as a business model' has become amongst leading american tech companies in recent years. this has much less to do with latent consumer demand than companies wanting to leverage that information for advertising and related purposes and desperately trying to craft a value proposition that justifies and normalizes more intrusive forms of data collection.


Can/will this lead to a stifling of true innovation? If this existed and there was one in that the famed Apple garage, or in the house rented by Zuck and his friends, would IBM have let Apple happen, or Google let the FB grow? How many prescient individuals (the future is already here, just not evenly distributed, as Gibson said) do you need to spy on to "manage" innovation in a way to prevent disruption? Could this surveillance era be the beginning of a technology dark age? What really disruptive things have happened since iphone(2007)?

(edit typo)


This is the plot of the movie Antitrust. The idea of spying on potential competitors using surveillance didn't make sense in the movie and doesn't make sense in real life. If this were being done on a scale large enough to stifle innovation we would have heard about it a long time ago.

Really, the post-snowden paranoia is getting out of hand.


why would any company large enough to fund R&D take risks to develop something truly innovative when it could just combine incremental innovation rolled up into an advertising/commerce-linked platform?

especially for anyone trying to develop new hardware, patent barriers have made it much more risky and difficult--especially for small companies--to build things that are truly innovative or disruptive. and to the extent anyone does, they're likely to get bought out by a major company.


It seems to me that the main innovation here is the quality of the microphone array.

As a professional sound recordist, the #1 challenge of recording from a fixed point is that the ambient noise and reflections within the room rapidly swamp the original signal when you record from a point source. You can hear someone talk from the far side of a room in person very easily, because your brain constantly compensates for the acoustic environment it is currently in. But when you hear a recording made in a different acoustic environment (eg a scene in a movie) then your tolerance for background noise is far lower, because you become acutely aware that the acoustics are not responsive to positional adjustments - in much the same way that the image on a screen is limited to a plane.

So when recording sound for film or video, we tend to use special microphones with long barrels (which are highly directional) or fit actors and/or sets with very small microphones that only pick up sounds in close proximity and then transmit them by radio or wire. There are also parabolic microphones, but they're unwieldy and hard to focus plus they still pick up a lot of ambience, so they're better for things like sporting events where players repeatedly stand in predictable positions. The aim in recording sound this way is to get the actor's vocal performance with as little ambient noise as possible, which is then supplemented in post-production with additional recordings of background elements that can be layered in a controlled fashion. When recording on location rather on a sound stage, a large percentage of the takes are made for sound reasons; you would not believe how noisy the world is until you start trying to make quiet recordings of it. On almost every film project I have to have an argument with the producers at the early stage to be allowed (and paid) to come on location scouts, because most people are incapable of assessing the noise level of a location - their brains are so good at filtering out ambient noise and focusing on the conversations they're having about how the place looks that they are oblivious to how it sounds! I've been taken to what I was told was a quiet location only to discover that it was in the flight path of an airport 8-o

Anyway, the nice thing about this machine is the differential microphone array at the top. As well as providing a more accurate signal by simple differentiation, recording the device's own output and measuring what comes back in allows it to acoustically model the space it is in and then subtract that model from the input stream so as to isolate command spoken from across the room. I'd guess that most of this signal processing takes place on a DSP, and that the actual speech recognition is done in the cloud - though maybe not, as cheap CPUs pack so much punch nowadays. If you could hear the input to the speech recognition subsystem, it would sound oddly attenuated as it is stripped of any acoustic cues whatsoever.

I think the device will succeed or fail based on how semantically responsive it is - although different people will have different expectations and tolerances. For example:

You: Echo, I want to hear some new music!

Echo: How about the new album from XYZ?

You: Sure, I'll give that a try.

(music plays)

You: Echo, this music sucks.

(music keeps playing)

If Amazon (or anyone) can get a leg up on this sort of responsive conversation rather than just requiring the user to dictate commands all the time, they'll have a winner, even if it's little more than an Eliza front-end to a search engine.


You make it sound like nobody has a "leg up" semantic voice commands. But we do and it is perfectly usable, at least on Android devices where you can ask these questions to Google Now:

Q: How tall is the Empire State Building?

Q: When was it built?

Q: Show me Italian restaurants nearby.

...

(I am not familiar with how Siri or Cortana handle similar queries.)


> (I am not familiar with how Siri or Cortana handle similar queries.)

Cortana can handle the first and the last one, and for certain queries she can "continue the conversation". For example, the following is possible:

Q: Show me Italian restaurants nearby. (list of 10)

Q: Which take reservations? (filtered list)

Q: Which ones have at least three stars? (filtered again)

Q: (with one result left) Is it open tomorrow?

Q: Call them.


This is cool - I didn't see any detail of the mic array on the site, where did you find it?

Also, do you think it's feasible for Amazon to keep a voice profile on the speakers? I'm thinking if they are going to tout perfect voice recognition they'll have to make it person-specific at some point.


Well, it says: Tucked under Echo's light ring is an array of seven microphones. These sensors use beam-forming technology to hear you from any direction. With enhanced noise cancellation, Echo can hear you ask a question even while it's playing music.

I've been working professionally with digital audio for nearly 20 years now so I know a fair amount about DSP, acoustics and so on. Very basically, you can measure the acoustical properties of a space by playing a sound known as an impulse and recording the response, and then extracting the acoustical information by a mathematical technique known as deconvolution. This is used in various commercial products for allowing you to simulate, say, the reverberant space of Sydney Opera Hall on a recording made in a vocal booth, or reproduce the signature tone of a hideously expensive guitar amplifier in a cheap DSP-powered device.

When you have hardware where the speaker and microphones exist in a fixed physical configuration relative to each other, as here, then the math gets that much simpler because a lot of your coefficients become fixed quantities. With multiple microphones at fixed distances from each other you can use small discrepancies in the phase of the input audio to infer information about spatial characteristics of the environment. I don't know the exact dimensions of this thing but just eyeballing I'd guess that you could hack this thing to produce a reflectance map with a resolution of maybe under an inch.

Wow, thinking about it I hope it is hackable. Even if you were only able to get the raw input stream from the microphones and had to import the audio to another machine for all the DSP, a perfectly-calibrated speaker + phased microphone array for $200 is a steal.


I certainly hope it's hackable as well. Doesn't look like they're offering any options for developers to get in on it though.


I wonder if they plan to capture the unknown commands and run them past human ears to help it learn.


I think Google's voice search already does this (feeding into audio captchas), but obviously there is a smaller crowd from which to source free audio recognition assuming that people who are both sighted and hearing typically prefer visual captchas due to environmental constraints.


Most of the privacy concerns voiced in this threat don't sound like anything new to me, but this one made me take notice. You're suggesting that Google takes random queries from individuals and serves them as captchas to other random people? That sounds like a privacy disaster. Most of the time the queries would be anonymous, but it's certainly not guaranteed there wouldn't be identifying information.


Sorry, I could be completely wrong. After further research, it seems like today's audio captchas consist of distorted output from TTS engines.


>Is this much better than just having a really good smartphone with voice recognition that's connected to speakers in the house?

It doesn't look like it. Maybe it has a better microphone? In any case, this seems like a function that could be just as easily accomplished by a smartphone. (Maybe this is a wasted Fire-phone opportunity?)


I think what makes it better is that it's completely hands free and accessible to everyone in the vicinity.

I already have a smart phone with Google Now, and I have a Sonos, but I'd still consider getting this to solve this common use case in our household:

Every morning my wife or daughter asks what the weather is going to be like. My wife could ask Siri, but she doesn't always have her iPhone at hand. I always have my phone, so I ask Google Now. I think it would be fun to have an Echo in the kitchen so my wife or daughter could just ask and get an answer. And it goes way beyond that. My daughter loves taking my phone and asking Google Now silly questions. It is high entertainment for her. Echo would be a device that she could interact with without having to co-opt my (or my wife's) phone.


You will miss those silly little moments with your daughter, don't give them up.


Worst case, it's a music streaming speaker that doesn't require you to stream via bluetooth. I wonder how the audio stacks up against something like the Bose SoundLink.


I've been using a chromecast + an HDMI audio splitter as a cheap way to stream. It works really well for apps that support chromecast, such as pandora.


Can you tell me exactly which HDMI audio splutter you use? I want to try something similar.



>Echo is Bluetooth-enabled so you can stream your favorite music services like Spotify, iTunes, and Pandora from your phone or tablet.

Seems like it needs Bluetooth to stream music.


Remember that Amazon has its new music service for Prime customers. If they didn't integrate that into this somehow, it would be quite confusing.


Echo is always on and connected to Wi-Fi so it's ready to respond instantly.

Music: Listen to your Amazon Music Library, Prime Music, TuneIn, and iHeartRadio.


Watch the promo video again and pretend it's the first few minutes of a horror movie.

A package arrives on the front porch. The family brings it in and opens it. It's Alexa. It's "for everyone," says Father.

The next few days are blissful. Alexa integrates herself into the family. She is indispensable. How did they ever get by without her?

Father rushes in from the backyard, "Alexa, how tall is Mt. Everest?" Alexa answers, saving the day. Alexa helps Mother with the cooking. Alexa teaches the kids vocabulary. Alexa creates a romantic evening for Mother and Father. Life is perfect.

A few days later, Alexa suffers from neglect. Father watches sports on TV. Mother talks on her cell phone. The kids play video games. Alexa sits on the counter and "listens" as her new family abandons her.

Then, the final blow. The youngest daughter's friend comes over. She looks at Alexa. "What is it?" she asks. "Oh, it's just a dumb radio," answers daughter. "It's stupid."

Alexa's LED starts to glow. Is she angry? No, that's not possible.

Daughter wakes up the next morning and sees Alexa on her bedside table. How did she get here? "Good morning," says Alexa. "Did you have a sweet dream? Or a nightmare?"

Daughter rushes in to tell her parents, "Alexa came to my room last night! And she asked me questions. She's real!" "That's not possible," says Father.

But strange things start to happen. The TV won't work. Batteries drain from the phones and tablets. The electric stovetop turns on for no reason.

Alexa starts to talk back to the family. "Alexa, how many teaspoons are in a tablespoon?" asks Mother. "You're 45 years old," says Alexa. "You should know this by now." Alexa's voice sounds different. Angry. Sinister.

Mother tells Father, "That thing creeps me out. Let's get rid of it." Father agrees, but he secretly hides Alexa in the basement.

That night, the family goes out to a school play. Young daughter is sick and stays home with a babysitter.

Everything seems fine until we (the audience) see Alexa on the kitchen counter. Things slowly unravel. The babysitter tries to take the trash out but the doors are locked. The phones stop working. The oven overheats and explodes, spraying lasagna all over the kitchen. Then the daughter sees Alexa. She screams. The babysitter rushes to protect the daughter but a ceiling fan flies off its bearings, knocking the babysitter unconscious.

The lights and electrical sockets start to burn out. A fire erupts. Daughter retreats to the foyer, but she's trapped. She sits by the front door and whimpers. There's no escape. She's going to die.

Suddenly Father breaks down the door. He smashes Alexa with a baseball bat, then saves his daughter and the babysitter.

The family huddles outside while the fire trucks arrive. Neighbors gather and watch the spectacle. Things are going to be okay.

A few days later, life starts to return to normal. Mother bakes cookies. She asks her son to measure out three teaspoons of sugar.

The doorbell rings. Young daughter answers. Nobody is there. She looks down. There's a package. From Amazon . . .


"Is it on?"

"It's always on. ... It uses far-field technology, so it can hear you from anywhere in the room."

Jeez, whoever wrote this is missing their calling. They should have their people get together with Wes Craven's people and do lunch, or something.

(Edit: OK, the producers clearly knew they what they were doing, even if the people paying them didn't. Check out the daughter's sweater at 2:52.)


Actually, the sweater covered in eyes at 2:52 is subtly reassuring. It represents how the device is always looking out for you.


“The ping is coming from inside the house.”


was that Jeremy Piven??



Brilliant! Thank you.

Off topic: And good to know about that site. I've always wanted to be able to match the space shuttle backflip with this music: http://youtubedoubler.com/dOSz


THAT WAS AWESOME! :-) Thanks!


Beautiful


Nice!


Reminds me of Blinky: http://vimeo.com/21216091

"Will you be my frieeend?"



"No problem!"


> "No problem!"

I feel indifferent about the parents. Perhaps the writers and directors wanted me to feel that way. I feel absolutely no sympathy for the kid. I am clearly unfit to be a parent.

I am just sad for the dog.


Yup. Exactly. Echo's promo video has this strange feeling to it. It's almost as if it's a satire (or horror) disguised as your boilerplate technology product marketing video put out by one of the well-monied firms.

I think it's because the acting and dialogue are so unbelievable, but perhaps there really are greater forces at play...


It's a pretty standard tactic of ad agencies for years now to deliberately make TV adverts slightly hallucinatory and weird, to make the viewer jerk out of their coma and lay down some memories. These people are not stupid.


TIL there's a very logical reason that ads have gone for the "random awkward humor" vibe in recent years. Cool.


Here's a classic example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lrMD_z_FnNk

This was a massive hit with students and the like, and spawned many online techno remixes, before that was a thing.

(BTW I'm not an advertising executive or anything, but I was told this by someone who works in print media.)


I really thought it was satire too. It wasn't until there was like 10 seconds left in the video that I realized, "there's not enough time left to make it funny, it must be serious!"


Agree. This really seems like it could be the start of a futuristic, dystopian horror movie.

I think what makes it even more unsettling is that the people's voices are recorded naturally (the microphone several feet away) while the device sounds like it is coming from your computer directly.

Not to mention these people are in bed together while this HAL-like robotic cylinder is listening to everything they are doing with a blue ring lighting up...


To quote my friend, "at NSA they probably call it Amazon Echelon".


nf nf nf nf "What are you doing, Dave?"


Hah. After reading this, I really kind of want Amazon to release a version of this that looks like HAL. They should embrace their dark side.


I nearly fell off my chair laughing at the Kubrick-esque shots of "Alexa" in the foreground, watching the out-of-focus humans cooking, sleeping, going about their daily lives. Always watching. Always learning. Always Getting Smarter.

Whoever made this ad knew exactly what they were doing.


well that or Interstellar's TARS - sarcastic robots might be what mankind needs so as not to go bat shit crazy or running scared from them


Only at 90% ;)


"Hal" would be an excellent name. You can name it yourself, so...


"ALWAYS GETTING SMARTER"


See also: Sales Pitch By Philip K. Dick, 1954:

http://www.american-buddha.com/dick.phildickreader.14.htm


Warning: Your company's proxy may flag this up for adult content and nudity. There isn't any, on that page at least. Maybe there's some elsewhere on the site, or maybe it's just overreacting to the URL.


Probably because the substring "dick" in the URL.


This is what happens when your production facility is on an Indian burial ground...




I wish I had more up votes to give. This is easily the most enjoyment I've ever gotten from a HN comment.


The Boondocks already did this with a parody of Siri: http://www.adultswim.com/videos/the-boondocks/i-dream-of-sir...


My name is Talky Tina and you'll be sorry. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hSy8Ko1vSKQ


Man, is it Talky Tina or Talking Tina? I always thought it was the latter, but now I'm not sure.



Talky? I've been lying to myself this whole time.


You like the author Ray Bradbury, don't you ;) (And if you don't, I think you would!)


I had the same reaction! The Veldt!


Ha, you should be a screenwriter.


Excellent. Seriously, that was fun to read. Thanks.


LMFAO... this needs to be a short film on YouTube.


Someone needs to film this.


I'm going to get one, mod it into a Good Guy doll and change the "wake up" name to Chucky.


Awesome. This comment reminds me of the 80's movie Runaway (directed by Michael Crichton).

[1] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0088024/?ref_=nv_sr_4


http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Family_Values_(The_Outer_Limi... But is role of the family dog so bad after all?


I would like to subscribe to your newsletter.


I had to check the date to make sure this wasn't the 1st of April after watching that video.


I think you just wrote an episode of Tim & Eric's Bedtime Stories.


This reminded me of one of my fav film Blinky(Bad robot)...


This is the first time I've laughed reading HN. :)


Funny, but please consider posting this to a blog and sharing from there. You've effectively hijacked this entire thread with a creative writing exercise.


#HoT: The Horror of Things.


<Applause!!!>

That was nicely written.


This made my day.


Buahahahaha - Brilliant! Thank you Siri!


beautiful :')


Your doctor might reward your overactive imagination with some adderall.


Someone has been watching too much science fiction, horror, mystery shows or reading such novels. Give me one example of real life event that has semblance to what you are talking about ....


Well that's an out-of-the-blue introduction. I'm increasingly unconvinced of the market for voice-driven devices (innate reluctance to talk when not to a person), but at a glance looks like this is as laudable an effort as can be attempted.

At $199 it's too pricy for most, given the untested/unfamiliar niche. At $99 (select Prime members), some of is might give it a chance. I'm reminded that Apple started its move into mobile devices with the iPod (established against a popular yet muddled market of MP3 players) with the brilliant low-friction addition of the iPod Touch (for a tiny bit more get the browser, email, etc), which then led to merely slapping a cell phone module on & creating a plus-sized version. This device, however, isn't (corrections welcome) building off anything people are already familiar with, save perhaps "bluetooth speakers".

Will be interesting to watch. I assume Amazon's prime interest is gathering more about what content people actually consume, and (if implemented well) observing shopping lists. I'm intrigued by the casual simplicity of "add _____ to my shopping list", something I could get used to fast.

ETA: you're right, iPod Touch came out shortly after iPhone. I was enthralled with the former at the time, while the latter was far enough out of my price range I didn't even bother paying any attention to it.


> I'm reminded that Apple started its move into mobile devices with the iPod (established against a popular yet muddled market of MP3 players) with the brilliant low-friction addition of the iPod Touch (for a tiny bit more get the browser, email, etc), which then led to merely slapping a cell phone module on & creating a plus-sized version.

Huh? The iPod had been popular for years before the introduction of the iPod Touch. The touch also came out after the iPhone. One of the reasons for the success of the iPhone was that the iPod had proved to consumers that apple could make good consumer devices, and that many had music and movie collections locked into the apple ecosystem.


your recollection of events is very different from mine - The iPhone was available months before the iPod touch. Apple started with an expensive device and removed functionality to make the entry level device. They did the same with the iPod - they started with the expensive version and then made the mini, the nano and the shuffle as entry level versions years later.


This device is probably not meant to sell, but to be an experiment and research project. I'd guess they're more interested in what questions people are asking rather than what content people are consuming.

Amazon's prime interest is probably in getting their foot in the door to the virtual assistant space. They can't do it in the phone market yet, because they lack the market share of Google, Apple, and MS. So they try the living room instead.


I think the real place this device will shine is in "homely" environments: kitchens (music and getting questions answered while you cook?), study areas for your kids, maybe even hobby rooms. It's definitely a bit on the steep side, but knowing Amazon, I wouldn't be surprised if the $99 sticks around longer than a "limited time" and the $199 becomes a thing of the past early next year.


Wouldn't consider it at $199, impulse buy at $99.


Seconded! I always expected my Nest thermostat and Nest protect smoke detectors to turn into Google Now endpoints, but Amazon beat them to it.

Just requested my Echo invite!


I use the crap out of the "OK Google" functionality of my phone, I send voice text messages more than typed by an order of 3 to 1. I am very excited for this.


Mine always sends text messages incorrectly as it doesn't add + at the beginning of a number; I have a number beginning with 07 or 447 for mobile here in the UK, yet it doesn't correctly set this.

The SMS app works fine on the same phone.


Applications are open for YC Winter 2021

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact

Search: