German Justice Minister sets her sights on Amazon Alexa privacy

She called Amazon's vaguely-worded privacy policy "unacceptable".


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European Parliament (EP) elections are almost upon EU citizens – the highly anticipated event is scheduled to take place between May 23 and 26.

The impending vote seems to have brought on a great deal of anxiety among European Union (EU) ruling class, and now, one eminent member – the justice minister of EU's by far most powerful and influential member-state, Germany – is addressing some of the issues that voters are likely to find troublesome.

In keeping perhaps with the rules of election campaign politics, Germany's Justice Minister Katarina Barley has called out Amazon Echo – aka, Alexa – on privacy grounds.

The US retail giant's “smart speakers” – that once installed in homes proceed to always listen for the wake word, “Alexa” – have been around since 2014, but Barley, who is running in the May election on the German Social Democratic Party ticket, is now pointing out that Amazon's vaguely-worded privacy policy enabling recordings of voice commands is “unacceptable,” Politico said.

Barley argues that the practice might be in violation of EU's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), aimed at improving privacy protections of citizens of the bloc's member-states – but one proving somewhat difficult to implement in practice.

Now the German minister says that if Amazon fails to comply, it would face fines – EU's weapon of choice against tech giants found to be violating privacy or competition rules, that none the less more often than not leave little dent in their massive revenues.

Politico quoted Bloomberg as reporting that Amazon used these controversial voice recordings to improve algorithms used by Echo – and Barley as saying that “those who offer such products must guarantee the highest possible data protection and security standards – infringements must be stopped immediately.”

Reacting to this, Amazon said they were “taking the security and privacy of customers' personal information seriously” and “only annotating an extremely small number of interactions from a random set of customers in order improve the customer experience.”

Politico also noted that this was not Barley's first foray into privacy concerns – as in January, the minister criticized Facebook.

More recently, Barley revealed that she is not on Facebook or using its messaging app, WhatsApp – and now, she is bringing up a question that advocates have been urging users to consider all along: whether the trade-off between risking violations of their privacy in their own home is really worth the convenience of having access to “voice assistants.”

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Didi Rankovic

Didi Rankovich is an experienced online journalist, editor, and translator, with a career spanning over ten years writing for major a English-language website in Serbia, and previously working as translator for international organizations and peacekeepers in the Balkans. Rankovich is passionate about free and open source tech and is a head contributor for Reclaim The Net, focusing on lead stories. [email protected]
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