Nobody wins in the Amazon Alexa fight


Last year, James Bates of Bentonville, Arkansas, was charged with the murder of Victor Collins. Recently, his story made national headlines — Bates had an Amazon Echo, a “smart speaker” that can play media, order products, and answer requests through voice commands. Bentonville police had seized the Echo and gotten a warrant for the data it uploaded to Amazon, which included recordings and transcripts of all the queries Bates had made.

Amazon refused to comply. In a new court filing, the company argues that Bates’ conversations with the Echo are private information protected by the First Amendment. Whether or not Amazon prevails, the digital systems that we use should be designed to preserve our privacy and be transparent about the data collected about us. In our digital society, we need confidentiality not just from the government, but also the companies that build the products we use.

But tech giants like Amazon, Google and Apple have no interest in creating products that serve that need. For them, devices, apps and services are means to exploit unwitting consumers for personal data and profits. They seek to perpetuate the status quo, not give us innovative alternatives.

Amazon’s claim that exchanges with Echo are protected speech rests on the idea that “First Amendment protection (encompasses) the right to browse and purchase expressive materials anonymously, without fear of government discovery.”

It is ironic that Amazon seeks privacy from law enforcement while denying that same privilege to its customers. The company claims to be terrified of losing business from those who “have indicated a reluctance to use Amazon for online purchasing if their privacy is not protected,” yet it insists on storing Echo recordings and transcripts in a personally identifiable way.

This situation is similar to Apple’s high-profile squabble with the FBI after the 2015 San Bernardino shooting. Many sided with Apple when they refused to develop a custom version of the iPhone operating system that would enable the FBI to unlock a recovered device. They failed to consider that the FBI only asked because they knew Apple could perform the feat.

If Apple was sincerely concerned with the privacy and security of its customers, it would ensure that such bypasses are impossible to create, even by Apple itself. But like Amazon, Apple wants to have its cake and eat it too, to retain the ability to monitor its customers even as it denies that ability to our government.

In the ongoing battle between Amazon and law enforcement, we should be under no illusions that one is good and the other is bad, because neither party particularly cares about privacy and civil liberties. A choice between equally totalitarian digital masters is no true choice. We need systems that prioritize privacy over profits, not the other way around.

Young is a computer science junior from Bakersfield, California.