Amazon Echo

Alexa, does the Echo Dot Kids protect children’s privacy?

Posted by | Advertising Tech, Amazon, Amazon Echo, Amazon.com, artificial intelligence, center for digital democracy, coppa, Disney, echo, echo dot kids, eCommerce, Federal Trade Commission, Gadgets, nickelodeon, privacy, privacy policy, smart assistant, smart speaker, Speech Recognition, terms of service, United States, voice assistant | No Comments

A coalition of child protection and privacy groups has filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) urging it to investigate a kid-focused edition of Amazon’s Echo smart speaker.

The complaint against Amazon Echo Dot Kids, which has been lodged with the FTC by groups including the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, the Center for Digital Democracy and the Consumer Federation of America, argues that the e-commerce giant is violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) — including by failing to obtain proper consents for the use of kids’ data.

As with its other smart speaker Echo devices, the Echo Dot Kids continually listens for a wake word and then responds to voice commands by recording and processing users’ speech. The difference with this Echo is it’s intended for children to use — which makes it subject to U.S. privacy regulation intended to protect kids from commercial exploitation online.

The complaint, which can be read in full via the group’s complaint website, argues that Amazon fails to provide adequate information to parents about what personal data will be collected from their children when they use the Echo Dot Kids; how their information will be used; and which third parties it will be shared with — meaning parents do not have enough information to make an informed decision about whether to give consent for their child’s data to be processed.

They also accuse Amazon of providing at best “unclear and confusing” information per its obligation under COPPA to also provide notice to parents to obtain consent for children’s information to be collected by third parties via the online service — such as those providing Alexa “skills” (aka apps the AI can interact with to expand its utility).

A number of other concerns about Amazon’s device are also being raised with the FTC.

Amazon released the Echo Dot Kids a year ago — and, as we noted at the time, it’s essentially a brightly bumpered iteration of the company’s standard Echo Dot hardware.

There are differences in the software, though. In parallel, Amazon updated its Alexa smart assistant — adding parental controls, aka its FreeTime software, to the child-focused smart speaker.

Amazon said the free version of FreeTime that comes bundled with the Echo Dot Kids provides parents with controls to manage their kids’ use of the product, including device time limits; parental controls over skills and services; and the ability to view kids’ activity via a parental dashboard in the app. The software also removes the ability for Alexa to be used to make phone calls outside the home (while keeping an intercom functionality).

A paid premium tier of FreeTime (called FreeTime Unlimited) also bundles additional kid-friendly content, including Audible books, ad-free radio stations from iHeartRadio Family and premium skills and stories from the likes of Disney, National Geographic and Nickelodeon .

At the time it announced the Echo Dot Kids, Amazon said it had tweaked its voice assistant to support kid-focused interactions — saying it had trained the AI to understand children’s questions and speech patterns, and incorporated new answers targeted specifically at kids (such as jokes).

But while the company was ploughing resource into adding a parental control layer to Echo and making Alexa’s speech recognition kid-friendly, the COPPA complaint argues it failed to pay enough attention to the data protection and privacy obligations that apply to products targeted at children — as the Echo Dot Kids clearly is.

Or, to put it another way, Amazon offers parents some controls over how their children can interact with the product — but not enough controls over how Amazon (and others) can interact with their children’s data via the same always-on microphone.

More specifically, the group argues that Amazon is failing to meet its obligation as the operator of a child-directed service to provide notice and obtain consent for third parties operating on the Alexa platform to use children’s data — noting that its Children’s Privacy Disclosure policy states it does not apply to third-party services and skills.

Instead, the complaint says Amazon tells parents they should review the skill’s policies concerning data collection and use. “Our investigation found that only about 15% of kid skills provide a link to a privacy policy. Thus, Amazon’s notice to parents regarding data collection by third parties appears designed to discourage parental engagement and avoid Amazon’s responsibilities under Coppa,” the group writes in a summary of their complaint.

They are also objecting to how Amazon is obtaining parental consent — arguing its system for doing so is inadequate because it’s merely asking that a credit or debit/debit gift card number be inputted.

“It does not verify that the person ‘consenting’ is the child’s parent as required by Coppa,” they argue. “Nor does Amazon verify that the person consenting is even an adult because it allows the use of debit gift cards and does not require a financial transaction for verification.”

Another objection is that Amazon is retaining audio recordings of children’s voices far longer than necessary — keeping them indefinitely unless a parent actively goes in and deletes the recordings, despite COPPA requiring that children’s data be held for no longer than is reasonably necessary.

They found that additional data (such as transcripts of audio recordings) was also still retained even after audio recordings had been deleted. A parent must contact Amazon customer service to explicitly request deletion of their child’s entire profile to remove that data residue — meaning that to delete all recorded kids’ data a parent has to nix their access to parental controls and their kids’ access to content provided via FreeTime — so the complaint argues that Amazon’s process for parents to delete children’s information is “unduly burdensome” too.

Their investigation also found the company’s process for letting parents review children’s information to be similarly arduous, with no ability for parents to search the collected data — meaning they have to listen/read every recording of their child to understand what has been stored.

They further highlight that children’s Echo Dot Kids’ audio recordings can of course include sensitive personal details — such as if a child uses Alexa’s “remember” feature to ask the AI to remember personal data such as their address and contact details or personal health information like a food allergy.

The group’s complaint also flags the risk of other children having their data collected and processed by Amazon without their parents’ consent — such as when a child has a friend or family member visiting on a play date and they end up playing with the Echo together.

Responding to the complaint, Amazon has denied it is in breach of COPPA. In a statement, a company spokesperson said: “FreeTime on Alexa and Echo Dot Kids Edition are compliant with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). Customers can find more information on Alexa and overall privacy practices here: https://www.amazon.com/alexa/voice [amazon.com].”

An Amazon spokesperson also told us it only allows kid skills to collect personal information from children outside of FreeTime Unlimited (i.e. the paid tier) — and then only if the skill has a privacy policy and the developer separately obtains verified consent from the parent, adding that most kid skills do not have a privacy policy because they do not collect any personal information.

At the time of writing, the FTC had not responded to a request for comment on the complaint.

In Europe, there has been growing concern over the use of children’s data by online services. A report by England’s children’s commissioner late last year warned kids are being “datafied,” and suggested profiling at such an early age could lead to a data-disadvantaged generation.

Responding to rising concerns the U.K. privacy regulator launched a consultation on a draft Code of Practice for age appropriate design last month, asking for feedback on 16 proposed standards online services must meet to protect children’s privacy — including requiring that product makers put the best interests of the child at the fore, deliver transparent T&Cs, minimize data use and set high privacy defaults.

The U.K. government has also recently published a whitepaper setting out a policy plan to regulate internet content that has a heavy focus on child safety.

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Review: The $199 Echo Link turns the fidelity up to 11

Posted by | Amazon, Amazon Echo, amazon music unlimited, computing, echo, Echo Link, Gadgets, Google, google home, hardware, microsoft windows, operating systems, Pandora, smart speakers, Sonos, Spotify, streaming services | No Comments

The Echo Link takes streaming music and makes it sound better. Just wirelessly connect it to an Echo device and plug it into a set of nice speakers. It’s the missing link.

The Link bridges the gap between streaming music and a nice audio system. Instead of settling for the analog connection of an Echo Dot, the Echo Link serves audio over a digital connection and it makes just enough of a difference to justify the $200 price.

I plugged the Eco Link into the audio system in my office and was pleased with the results. This is the Echo device I’ve been waiting for.

In my case, the Echo Link took Spotfiy’s 320 kbps stream and opened it up. The Link creates a wider soundstage and makes the music a bit more full and expansive. The bass hits a touch harder and the highs now have a newfound crispness. Lyrics are clearer and easier to pick apart. The differences are subtle. Everything is just slightly improved over the sound quality found when using an Echo Dot’s 3.5mm output.

Don’t have a set of nice speakers? That’s okay; Amazon also just released the Echo Link Amp, which features a built-in amplifier capable of powering a set of small speakers.

Here’s the thing: I’m surprised Amazon is making the Echo Link. The device caters to what must be a small demographic of Echo owners looking to improve the quality of Pandora or Spotify when using an audio system. And yet, without support for local or streaming high-resolution audio, it’s not good enough for audiophiles. This is for wannabe audiophiles. Hey, that’s me.

Review

There are Echo’s scattered throughout my house. The devices provide a fantastic way to access music and NPR. The tiny Echo Link is perfect for the system in my office where I have a pair of Definitive Technology bookshelf speakers powered by an Onkyo receiver and amp. I have a turntable and SACD player connected to the receiver, but those are a hassle when I’m at my desk. The majority of the time I listen to Spotify through the Amazon Echo Input.

I added the Onkyo amplifier to the system last year and it made a huge difference to the quality. The music suddenly had more power. The two-channel amp pushes harder than the receiver, and resulted in audio that was more expansive and clear. And at any volume, too. I didn’t know what I was missing. That’s the trick with audio. Most of the time the audio sounds great until it suddenly sounds better. The Echo Link provided me with the same feeling of discovery.

To be clear, the $200 Echo Link does not provide a night and day difference in my audio quality. It’s a slight upgrade over the audio outputted by a $20 Echo Input — and don’t forget, an Echo device (like the $20 Echo Input) is required to make the Echo Link work.

The Echo Link provides the extra juice lacking from the Echo Input or Dot. Those less-expensive options output audio to an audio system, but only through an analog connection. The Echo Link offers a digital connection through Toslink or Digital Coax. It has analog outputs that’s powered by a DAC with a superior dynamic range and total harmonic distortion found in the Input or Dot. It’s an easy way to improve the quality of music from streaming services.

The Echo Link, and Echo Link Amp, also feature a headphone amp. It’s an interesting detail. With this jack, someone could have the Echo Link on their desk and use it to power a set of headphones without any loss of quality.

I set up a simple A/B test to spot the differences between a Link and a Dot. First, I connected the Echo Link with a Toslink connection to my receiver and an Echo Input. I also connected an Echo Dot through its 3.5mm analog connection to the receiver. I created a group in the Alexa app of the devices. This allowed each of the devices to play the same source simultaneously. Then, as needed, I was able to switch between the Dot and Link with just a touch of a button, providing an easy and quick way to test the differences.

I’ll leave it up to you to justify the cost. To me, as someone who has invested money into a quality audio system, the extra cost of the Echo Link is worth it. But to others, an Echo Dot could be enough.

It’s important to note that the Echo Link works a bit differently than other Echo devices connected to an audio system. When, say, a Dot is connected to an audio system, the internal speakers are turned off and all of the audio is sent to the system. The Echo Link doesn’t have to override the companion Echo. When an Echo Link is connected to an Echo device, the Echo still responds through its internal speakers; only music is sent to the Echo Link. For example, when the Echo is asked about the weather, the forecast is played back through the speakers in the Echo and not the audio system connected to the Echo Link. In most cases, this allows the owner to turn off the high-power speakers and still have access to voice commands on the Echo.

The Echo Link takes streaming music and instantly improves the quality. In my case, the improvements were slight but noticeable. It works with all the streaming services supported by Echo devices, but it’s important to note it does not work with Tidal’s high-res Master Audio tracks. The best the Echo Link can do is 320 kbps from Spotify or Tidal. This is a limiting factor and it’s not surprising. If the Echo Link supported Tidal’s Master Tracks, I would likely sign up for that service, and that is not in the best interest of Amazon, which hopes I sign up for Amazon Music Unlimited.

I spoke to Amazon about the Echo Link’s lack of support for Tidal Master Tracks and they indicated they’re interested in hearing how customers will use the device before committing to adding support.

The Link is interesting. Google doesn’t have anything similar in its Google Home Line. The Sonos Amp is similar, but with a built-in amplifier, it’s a closer competitor to the Echo Link Amp. Several high-end audio companies sell components that can stream audio over digital connections, yet none are as easy to use or as inexpensive as the Echo Link. The Echo Link is the easiest way to improve the sound of streaming music services.

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Review: The $299 Echo Link Amp adds Alexa to any speaker

Posted by | Amazon, Amazon Echo, audio engineering, AV, consumer electronics, Echo Link Amp, electric guitars, Gadgets, hardware, michigan, Music, musical instruments, Sound, streaming services, yamaha | No Comments

The Echo Link Amp is designed to give Echo owners options. Instead of settling for the sound from a couple of Echo speakers, this amp lets owners use a set of nice bookshelf speakers. Best yet, this replaces a large receiver generally needed to power speakers.

At $299, the Echo Link Amp lives in a curious spot. It’s less expensive and smaller than a traditional home audio system. Yet it’s more expensive than smaller desktop amps with a similar power rating.

Like its little brother, the $199 Echo Link, the $299 Echo Link Amp requires another Echo device. The Link and the Link Amp lack a microphone, which is needed to talk to the system. These two products are, if you will, the missing link between Alexa and better sound.

There are less expensive ways to replicate a lot of the Echo Link Amp’s feature set. There are a handful of small and powerful amps available for around $50 that can take audio from an Echo Dot and power a set of speakers. I use a $30 Lepai amp to power a set of Yamaha outdoor speakers on my deck. I used this system to test the Echo Link Amp.

Review

It’s finally nice outside here in Michigan. The sun is out and the leaves are budding. I’m writing this from my deck where I have two Yamaha speakers connected to a small amp and an Echo Dot, which are mounted to the floorboards. It’s the best. I can yell requests to the Dot from my fire pit. The Dot and $30 amp have survived two Michigan winters, too.

This is the perfect use case for the Echo Link Amp, though I’m sure Amazon will disapprove of the placement outside. That’s okay.

Like when I tested the Echo Link, I enlisted the help of another Echo product to make switching between the audio sources a bit easier. Using an AV switcher I was able to connect everything simultaneously and press a button to switch between the sources. I cued up some summer BBQ music and stepped back, remote in hand.

There wasn’t a difference.

The $30 amp had the same bass response, vocal reproduction and soundstage as the $300 Echo Link Amp. On paper, the Echo Link Amp has more power, but in practice, that power did not result in a difference with these outdoor speakers. I disconnected everything and plugged the speakers directly into the amps. Nothing changed. Hank Jr. sounded the same. For better or worse, of course.

I tried the system on a set of old Infinity speakers and had the same results. The sound had the same fidelity. On both systems the highs were just as high and the lows were just as low. The quality had the same, admittedly, lack of punch, but sounded good enough to blast Kenny Chesney throughout my yard.

The $299 Echo Link Amp shares a lot with the $199 Echo Link. The main difference, as the name suggests, is the amp. The Link Amp has the ability to drive a set of speakers, whereas the Link needs to be connected to an amplifier. I found the Echo Link to be a fantastic addition to a home audio setup. The $199 device provides a digital connection lacking on other Echo devices and I found it to improve the audio quality of streaming services.

The Echo Link Amp, however, is a touch disappointing, but at the same time very proficient at its job. Buyers are paying for the ease of use more than the quality of the amplifier. It’s clever too. If the connected Echo Dot is asked a question, it responds with the answer. This lets the owner turn off the amplifier and still retain access to Alexa. Only when the owner asks the Echo to play audio does it offload the task to the powered speakers.

With a series of inputs, the Echo Link Amp can easily serve several roles, including as a 2.1 channel home theater receiver.

The Echo Link Amp is a lovely device even though I find the audio quality lacking when compared to less expensive amps. It’s clever and I’m surprised Amazon is selling the device. While the rest of the Echo product line is a mass market play, the Echo Link and Echo Link Amp are designed for a smaller market. The Echo Link Amp features a set of functions unavailable on any other Echo device and the easiest way to add Alexa to a set of speakers.

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Over a quarter of US adults now own a smart speaker, typically an Amazon Echo

Posted by | Amazon, Amazon Echo, apple inc, artificial intelligence, Assistant, Gadgets, Google, Google Assistant, HomePod, smart speaker, smart speakers, smartphone, smartphones, Sonos, Speaker, TC, United States, virtual assistant, voice assistant, voice computing | No Comments

U.S. smart speaker owners grew 40 percent over 2018 to now reach 66.4 million — or 26.2 percent of the U.S. adult population — according to a new report from Voicebot.ai and Voicify released this week, which detailed adoption patterns and device market share. The report also reconfirmed Amazon Echo’s lead, noting the Alexa-powered smart speaker grew to a 61 percent market share by the end of last year — well above Google Home’s 24 percent share.

These findings fall roughly in line with other analysts’ reports on smart speaker market share in the U.S. However, because of varying methodology, they don’t all come back with the exact same numbers.

For example, in December 2018, eMarketer reported the Echo had accounted for nearly 67 percent of all U.S. smart speaker sales in 2018. Meanwhile, CIRP last month put Echo further ahead, with a 70 percent share of the installed base in the U.S.

Though the percentages differ, the overall trend is that Amazon Echo remains the smart speaker to beat.

While on the face of things this appears to be great news for Amazon, Voicebot’s report did note that Google Home has been closing the gap with Echo in recent months.

Amazon Echo’s share dropped nearly 11 percent over 2018, while Google Home made up for just over half that decline with a 5.5 percent gain, and “other” devices making up the rest. This latter category, which includes devices like Apple’s HomePod and Sonos One, grew last year to now account for 15 percent of the market.

That said, the Sonos One has Alexa built-in, so it may not be as bad for Amazon as the numbers alone seem to indicate. After all, Amazon is selling its Echo devices at cost or even a loss to snag more market share. The real value over time will be in controlling the ecosystem.

The growth in smart speakers is part of a larger trend toward voice computing and smart voice assistants — like Siri, Bixby and Google Assistant — which are often accessed on smartphones.

A related report from Juniper Research last month estimated there will be 8 billion digital voice assistants in use by 2023, up from the 2.5 billion in use at the end of 2018. This is due to the increased use of smartphone assistants as well as the smart speaker trend, the firm said.

Voicebot’s report also saw how being able to access voice assistance on multiple platforms was helping to boost usage numbers.

It found that smart speaker owners used their smartphone’s voice assistant more than those who didn’t have a smart speaker in their home. It seems consumers get used to being able to access their voice assistants across platforms — now that Siri has made the jump to speakers and Alexa to phones, for instance.

The full report is available on Voicebot.ai’s website here.

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You can now ask Alexa to control your Roku devices

Posted by | Alexa, Amazon, amazon alexa, Amazon Echo, artificial intelligence, echo, Gadgets, Media, roku, Streaming Media, virtual assistant, voice assistant, voice search | No Comments

Roku this morning announced its devices will now be compatible with Amazon’s Alexa. Through a new Roku skill for Alexa, Roku owners will be able to control their devices in order to do things like launch a channel, play or pause a show, search for entertainment options and more. Roku TV owners will additionally be able to control various functions related to their television, like adjusting the volume, turning on and off the TV, switching inputs and changing channels if there is an over-the-air antenna attached.

The added support for Amazon Alexa will be available to devices running Roku OS 8.1 or higher, and will require that customers enable the new Roku skill, which will link their account to Amazon.

Roku has developed its own voice assistant designed specifically for its platform, which is available with a touch of a button on its voice remote as well as through optional accessories like its voice-powered wireless speakers, tabletop Roku Touch remote or TCL’s Roku-branded Smart Soundbar. However, it hasn’t ignored the needs of those who have invested in other voice platforms.

Already, Roku devices work with Google Assistant-powered devices, like Google Home and Google Home Mini, through a similar voice app launched last fall.

Support for the dominant streaming media platform — Amazon Alexa — was bound to be next. EMarketer said Amazon took two-thirds of smart speaker sales last year, and CIRP said Echo has a 70 percent U.S. market share.

The Roku app will work with any Alexa-enabled device, including the Amazon Echo, Echo Show, Echo Dot, Echo Spot and Echo Plus, as well as those powered by Alexa from third parties, the company confirmed to TechCrunch.

Once enabled, you’ll be able to say things like “Alexa, pause Roku,” or “Alexa, open Hulu on Roku,” or “Alexa, find comedies on Roku,” and more. The key will be starting the command with “Alexa,” as usual, then specify “Roku” is where the action should take place (e.g. “on Roku”).

One change with the launch of voice support via Alexa is that the commands are a bit more natural, in some cases. Whereas Google Assistant required users to say “Hey Google, pause on Roku,” the company today says the same command for Alexa users is “Alexa, pause Roku.” That’s a lot easier to remember and say. However, most of the other commands are fairly consistent between the two platforms.

“Consumers often have multiple voice ecosystems in their homes,” said Ilya Asnis, senior vice president of Roku OS at Roku, in a statement about the launch. “By allowing our customers to choose Alexa, in addition to Roku voice search and controls, and other popular voice assistants, we are strengthening the value Roku offers as a neutral platform in home entertainment.”

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Amazon has paused sales of its Echo Wall Clock due to connectivity issues

Posted by | Alexa, Amazon, amazon alexa, Amazon Echo, clock, computing, Gadgets, microwave, Publishing, TC, world wide web | No Comments

Amazon launched an Echo Wall Clock before the end of last year but, less than a month later, things aren’t running to schedule. The e-commerce giant has paused the sale of the $30 Alexa-powered smart clock after a number of customers reported connectivity issues, according to The Verge.

The clock is still listed on Amazon but, as of Tuesday, it is “currently unavailable.”

“We’re aware that a small number of customers have had issues with connectivity. We’re working hard to address this and plan to make Echo Wall Clock available again in the coming weeks,” Amazon told The Verge in a statement.

The clock is pitched at existing Alexa users who could use it to set timers, countdowns or alarms, while it automatically adjusts to seasonal time changes. It is unashamedly basic, both in design as well as functionality, but it is an interesting addition to Amazon’s expanding home appliance push. That also includes an Alexa microwave (less impressive), a singing fish (ok…) along the more established cast of home speakers, the “Show” video screen, a subwoofer and more.

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Amazon Echo speakers now play friendly with Apple Music

Posted by | Amazon Echo, apple music, Gadgets, Media, TC | No Comments

Amazon recently said Apple Music would find its way onto Amazon Echo devices sometime soon — and sure enough, it appears to be rolling out now.

To make Alexa work with Apple’s streaming service, you should just have to jump into the newly updated iOS/Android Alexa app and link up your account. You can find the option under Settings > Music.

Once done, commands like “Alexa, play music by Halsey on Apple Music” should work. Or, if you don’t want to have to say the “… on Apple Music” bit every time, you can just set Apple Music as the default service. If you don’t have a specific artist in mind, you an also request playlists or genres.

One catch: as 9to5mac points out, it appears this currently only works with Amazon Echo speakers, and not yet with third-party speakers (like the Sonos ONE or Polk’s Audio Command sounder) that happen to have Alexa-support built in.

Not a fan of Apple’s offering? Alexa also works with Spotify, Pandora, Tidal, Deezer and Amazon’s own Music service.

Using Google devices, rather than Amazon’s? Alas, still no word on if/when proper Apple Music support might come to Google Home.

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Alexa is reported down across Europe

Posted by | Alexa, Amazon, amazon alexa, Amazon Echo, austria, computing, engadget, Gadgets, Germany, ireland, Online Music Stores, Publishing, spain, United Kingdom, world wide web | No Comments

Reports are coming in that Amazon’s Alexa service is down in parts of UK, Spain, Germany and Austria. According to Down Detector and Twitter, the problem started surfacing around 8am local time and still continues. Interestingly, some users are reporting the issue is isolated to Echo Dot 2 models and while other Echo devices are still working. Sometimes. Other reports say everything is down. When users try to talk to their Echo devices, Alexa will report an error with connectivity and spin a red ring around the top.

Because of this outage, users will have to use wall switches to turn on lights, press buttons to make coffee and look outside to assess the weather. Sucks. I know.

As Engadget points out in their coverage, the outage could stem from Amazon Web Service issues at the company’s Ireland facility. Amazon is now reporting that those issues have been resolved so there’s a chance Alexa will be coming back online shortly.

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Security researchers found a way to hack into the Amazon Echo

Posted by | Alexa, Amazon, Amazon Echo, Gadgets, privacy, Security, TC | No Comments

Hackers at DefCon have exposed new security concerns around smart speakers. Tencent’s Wu HuiYu and Qian Wenxiang spoke at the security conference with a presentation called Breaking Smart Speakers: We are Listening to You, explaining how they hacked into an Amazon Echo speaker and turned it into a spy bug.

The hack involved a modified Amazon Echo, which had parts swapped out, including some that had been soldered on. The modified Echo was then used to hack into other, non-modified Echos by connecting both the hackers’ Echo and a regular Echo to the same LAN.

This allowed the hackers to turn their own, modified Echo into a listening bug, relaying audio from the other Echo speakers without those speakers indicating that they were transmitting.

This method was very difficult to execute, but represents an early step in exploiting Amazon’s increasingly popular smart speaker.

The researchers notified Amazon of the exploit before the presentation, and Amazon has already pushed a patch, according to Wired.

Still, the presentation demonstrates how one Echo, with malicious firmware, could potentially alter a group of speakers when connected to the same network, posing concerns with the idea of Echos in hotels.

Wired explained how the networking feature of the Echo allowed for the hack:

If they can then get that doctored Echo onto the same Wi-Fi network as a target device, the hackers can take advantage of a software component of Amazon’s speakers, known as Whole Home Audio Daemon, that the devices use to communicate with other Echoes in the same network. That daemon contained a vulnerability that the hackers found they could exploit via their hacked Echo to gain full control over the target speaker, including the ability to make the Echo play any sound they chose, or more worryingly, silently record and transmit audio to a faraway spy.

An Amazon spokesperson told Wired that “customers do not need to take any action as their devices have been automatically updated with security fixes,” adding that “this issue would have required a malicious actor to have physical access to a device and the ability to modify the device hardware.”

To be clear, the actor would only need physical access to their own Echo to execute the hack.

While Amazon has dismissed concerns that its voice activated devices are monitoring you, hackers at this year’s DefCon proved that they can.

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Digging deeper into smart speakers reveals two clear paths

Posted by | Alexa, Amazon, amazon alexa, Amazon Echo, Apple, artificial intelligence, Assistant, Ben Einstein, computing, echo, Gadgets, Google, Google Assistant, ring, smart speaker, smart speakers, Sonos, sonos one, Speaker, Spotify, steel, TC, technology | No Comments

In a truly fascinating exploration into two smart speakers – the Sonos One and the Amazon Echo – BoltVC’s Ben Einstein has found some interesting differences in the way a traditional speaker company and an infrastructure juggernaut look at their flagship devices.

The post is well worth a full read but the gist is this: Sonos, a very traditional speaker company, has produced a good speaker and modified its current hardware to support smart home features like Alexa and Google Assistant. The Sonos One, notes Einstein, is a speaker first and smart hardware second.

“Digging a bit deeper, we see traditional design and manufacturing processes for pretty much everything. As an example, the speaker grill is a flat sheet of steel that’s stamped, rolled into a rounded square, welded, seams ground smooth, and then powder coated black. While the part does look nice, there’s no innovation going on here,” he writes.

The Amazon Echo, on the other hand, looks like what would happen if an engineer was given an unlimited budget and told to build something that people could talk to. The design decisions are odd and intriguing and it is ultimately less a speaker than a home conversation machine. Plus it is very expensive to make.

Pulling off the sleek speaker grille, there’s a shocking secret here: this is an extruded plastic tube with a secondary rotational drilling operation. In my many years of tearing apart consumer electronics products, I’ve never seen a high-volume plastic part with this kind of process. After some quick math on the production timelines, my guess is there’s a multi-headed drill and a rotational axis to create all those holes. CNC drilling each hole individually would take an extremely long time. If anyone has more insight into how a part like this is made, I’d love to see it! Bottom line: this is another surprisingly expensive part.

Sonos, which has been making a form of smart speaker for 15 years, is a CE company with cachet. Amazon, on the other hand, sees its devices as a way into living rooms and a delivery system for sales and is fine with licensing its tech before making its own. Therefore to compare the two is a bit disingenuous. Einstein’s thesis that Sonos’ trajectory is troubled by the fact that it depends on linear and closed manufacturing techniques while Amazon spares no expense to make its products is true. But Sonos makes speakers that work together amazingly well. They’ve done this for a decade and a half. If you compare their products – and I have – with competing smart speakers an non-audiophile “dumb” speakers you will find their UI, UX, and sound quality surpass most comers.

Amazon makes things to communicate with Amazon. This is a big difference.

Where Einstein is correct, however, is in his belief that Sonos is at a definite disadvantage. Sonos chases smart technology while Amazon and Google (and Apple, if their HomePod is any indication) lead. That said, there is some value to having a fully-connected set of speakers with add-on smart features vs. having to build an entire ecosystem of speaker products that can take on every aspect of the home theatre.

On the flip side Amazon, Apple, and Google are chasing audio quality while Sonos leads. While we can say that in the future we’ll all be fine with tinny round speakers bleating out Spotify in various corners of our room, there is something to be said for a good set of woofers. Whether this nostalgic love of good sound survives this generation’s tendency to watch and listen to low resolution media is anyone’s bet, but that’s Amazon’s bet to lose.

Ultimately Sonos is strong and fascinating company. An upstart that survived the great CE destruction wrought by Kickstarter and Amazon, it produces some of the best mid-range speakers I’ve used. Amazon makes a nice – almost alien – product, but given that it can be easily copied and stuffed into a hockey puck that probably costs less than the entire bill of materials for the Amazon Echo it’s clear that Amazon’s goal isn’t to make speakers.

Whether the coming Sonos IPO will be successful depends partially on Amazon and Google playing ball with the speaker maker. The rest depends on the quality of product and the dedication of Sonos users. This good will isn’t as valuable as a signed contract with major infrastructure players but Sonos’ good will is far more than Amazon and Google have with their popular but potentially intrusive product lines. Sonos lives in the home while Google and Amazon want to invade it. That is where Sonos wins.

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