smart speaker

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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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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Wrest control from a snooping smart speaker with this teachable ‘parasite’

Posted by | Advertising Tech, Alexa, artificial intelligence, connected devices, Europe, Gadgets, GitHub, Google, google home, hardware, Home Automation, Internet of Things, IoT, neural network, privacy, Security, smart assistant, smart speaker, Speaker | No Comments

What do you get when you put one internet-connected device on top of another? A little more control than you otherwise would in the case of Alias the “teachable ‘parasite’” — an IoT project smart speaker topper made by two designers, Bjørn Karmann and Tore Knudsen.

The Raspberry Pi-powered, fungus-inspired blob’s mission is to whisper sweet nonsense into Amazon Alexa’s (or Google Home’s) always-on ear so it can’t accidentally snoop on your home.

Project Alias from Bjørn Karmann on Vimeo.

Alias will only stop feeding noise into its host’s speakers when it hears its own wake command — which can be whatever you like.

The middleman IoT device has its own local neural network, allowing its owner to christen it with a name (or sound) of their choosing via a training interface in a companion app.

The open-source TensorFlow library was used for building the name training component.

So instead of having to say “Alexa” or “Ok Google” to talk to a commercial smart speaker — and thus being stuck parroting a big tech brand name in your own home, not to mention being saddled with a device that’s always vulnerable to vocal pranks (and worse: accidental wiretapping) — you get to control what the wake word is, thereby taking back a modicum of control over a natively privacy-hostile technology.

This means you could rename Alexa “Bezosallseeingeye,” or refer to your Google Home as “Carelesswhispers.” Whatever floats your boat.

Once Alias hears its custom wake command it will stop feeding noise into the host speaker — enabling the underlying smart assistant to hear and respond to commands as normal.

“We looked at how cordyceps fungus and viruses can appropriate and control insects to fulfill their own agendas and were inspired to create our own parasite for smart home systems,” explain Karmann and Knudsen in a write-up of the project here. “Therefore we started Project Alias to demonstrate how maker-culture can be used to redefine our relationship with smart home technologies, by delegating more power from the designers to the end users of the products.”

Alias offers a glimpse of a richly creative custom future for IoT, as the means of producing custom but still powerful connected technology products becomes more affordable and accessible.

And so also perhaps a partial answer to IoT’s privacy problem, for those who don’t want to abstain entirely. (Albeit, on the security front, more custom and controllable IoT does increase the hackable surface area — so that’s another element to bear in mind; more custom controls for greater privacy does not necessarily mesh with robust device security.)

If you’re hankering after your own Alexa-disrupting blob-topper, the pair have uploaded a build guide to Instructables and put the source code on GitHub. So fill yer boots.

Project Alias is of course not a solution to the underlying tracking problem of smart assistants — which harvest insights gleaned from voice commands to further flesh out interest profiles of users, including for ad targeting purposes.

That would require either proper privacy regulation or, er, a new kind of software virus that infiltrates the host system and prevents it from accessing user data. And — unlike this creative physical IoT add-on — that kind of tech would not be at all legal.

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JBL’s smart display combines Google smarts with good sound

Posted by | Android, Assistant, Gadgets, Google, Google Assistant, JBL, smart speaker, Speaker, TC | No Comments

If you’re looking for a smart display that’s powered by the Google Assistant, you now have two choices: the Lenovo Smart Display and the JBL Link View. Lenovo was first out of the gate with its surprisingly stylish gadget, but it also left room for improvement. JBL, given its heritage as an audio company, is putting the emphasis on sound quality, with stereo speakers and a surprising amount of bass.

In terms of the overall design, the Link View isn’t going to win any prizes, but its pill shape definitely isn’t ugly either. JBL makes the Link View in any color you like, as long as that’s black. It’ll likely fit in with your home decor, though.

The Link View has an 8-inch high-definition touchscreen that is more than crisp enough for the maps, photos and YouTube videos you’ll play on it. In using it for the last two weeks, the screen turned out to be a bit of a fingerprint magnet, but you’d expect that given that I put it on the kitchen counter and regularly used it to entertain myself while waiting for the water to boil.

At the end of the day, you’re not going to spend $250 on a nice speaker with a built-in tablet. What matters most here is whether the visual side of the Google Assistant works for you. I find that it adds an extra dimension to the audio responses, no matter whether that’s weather reports, a map of my daily commute (which can change depending on traffic) or a video news report. Google’s interface for these devices is simple and clear, with large buttons and clearly presented information. And maybe that’s no surprise. These smart speakers are the ideal surface for its Material Design language, after all.

As a demo, Google likes to talk about how these gadgets can help you while cooking, with step-by-step recipes and videos. I find that this is a nice demo indeed, and thought that it would help me get a bit more creative with trying new recipes. In reality, though, I never have the ingredients I need to cook what Google suggests. If you are a better meal planner than I am, your mileage will likely vary.

What I find surprisingly useful is the display’s integration of Google Duo. I’m aware that the Allo/Duo combo is a bit of a flop, but the display does make you want to use Duo because you can easily have a video chat while just doing your thing in the kitchen. If you set up multiple users, the display can even receive calls for all of them. And don’t worry, there is a physical slider you can use to shut down the camera whenever you want.

The Link View also made me appreciate Google’s Assistant routines more (and my colleague Lucas Matney found the same when he tried out the Lenovo Smart Display). And it’s just a bit easier to look at the weather graphics instead of having the Assistant rattle off the temperature for the next couple of days.

Maybe the biggest letdown, though (and this isn’t JBL’s, fault but a feature Google needs to enable) is that you can’t add a smart display to your Google Assistant groups. That means you can’t use it as part of your all-house Google Home audio system, for example. It’s an odd omission for sure, given the Link View’s focus on sound, but my understanding is that the same holds true for the Lenovo Smart Display. If this is a deal breaker for you, then I’d hold off on buying a Google Assistant smart display for the time being.

You can, however, use the display as a Chromecast receiver to play music from your phone or watch videos. While you are not using it, the display can show the current time or simply go to blank.

Another thing that doesn’t work on smart displays yet is Google’s continued “conversation feature,” which lets you add a second command without having to say “OK, Google” again. For now, the smart displays only work in English, too.

When I first heard about these smart displays, I wasn’t sure if they were going to be useful. Turns out, they are. I do live in the Google Assistant ecosystem, though, and I’ve got a few Google Homes set up around my house. If you’re looking to expand your Assistant setup, then the Link View is a nice addition — and if you’re just getting started (or only need one Assistant-enabled speaker/display), then opting for a smart display over a smart speaker may just be the way to go, assuming you can stomach the extra cost.

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The Google Assistant is now bilingual 

Posted by | Android, artificial intelligence, Gadgets, Google, Google Assistant, google home, google search, hardware, Roomba, smart speaker | No Comments

The Google Assistant just got more useful for multilingual families. Starting today, you’ll be able to set up two languages in the Google Home app and the Assistant on your phone and Google Home will then happily react to your commands in both English and Spanish, for example.

Today’s announcement doesn’t exactly come as a surprise, given that Google announced at its I/O developer conference earlier this year that it was working on this feature. It’s nice to see that this year, Google is rolling out its I/O announcements well before next year’s event. That hasn’t always been the case in the past.

Currently, the Assistant is only bilingual and it still has a few languages to learn. But for the time being, you’ll be able to set up any language pair that includes English, German, French, Spanish, Italian and Japanese. More pairs are coming in the future and Google also says it is working on trilingual support, too.

Google tells me this feature will work with all Assistant surfaces that support the languages you have selected. That’s basically all phones and smart speakers with the Assistant, but not the new smart displays, as they only support English right now.

While this may sound like an easy feature to implement, Google notes this was a multi-year effort. To build a system like this, you have to be able to identify multiple languages, understand them and then make sure you present the right experience to the user. And you have to do all of this within a few seconds.

Google says its language identification model (LangID) can now distinguish between 2,000 language pairs. With that in place, the company’s researchers then had to build a system that could turn spoken queries into actionable results in all supported languages. “When the user stops speaking, the model has not only determined what language was being spoken, but also what was said,” Google’s VP Johan Schalkwyk and Google Speech engineer Lopez Moreno write in today’s announcement. “Of course, this process requires a sophisticated architecture that comes with an increased processing cost and the possibility of introducing unnecessary latency.”

If you are in Germany, France or the U.K., you’ll now also be able to use the bilingual assistant on a Google Home Max. That high-end version of the Google Home family is going on sale in those countries today.

In addition, Google also today announced that a number of new devices will soon support the Assistant, including the tado° thermostats, a number of new security and smart home hubs (though not, of course, Amazon’s own Ring Alarm), smart bulbs and appliances, including the iRobot Roomba 980, 896 and 676 vacuums. Who wants to have to push a button on a vacuum, after all.

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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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Amazon’s brightest new innovation might just be the smart home bundle

Posted by | Amazon, amazon echo 2017, echo, echo plus, Gadgets, hardware, smart home, smart speaker, TC | No Comments

 Amazon went above and beyond today in terms of launching stuff – it debuted not one, not two, but six brand new devices at an event held at its HQ. One of the most interesting things it did today was not any particular piece of hardware it designed or built – but the way it’s selling the Echo Plus, the version of its Echo smart speaker with an integrated smart home hub. The… Read More

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