Could What Your Amazon Alexa Overhears Be Used Against You?

A murder case may offer clues to whether Amazon Alexa protects users' privacy.

Have you seen the Geico ad with the talking parrot? A 19th-century ship is boarded, the captain surrounded by pirates. The leader shouts, “Let’s feed him to the sharks,” (pirate cheers and swords held high) “and take all his gold” (more cheers). The parrot repeats these lines, and adds, “and hide it from the crew. They’re all morons anyway.”

The voiceover at the end of the Geico ad explains, “If you’re a parrot, you repeat things. That’s what you do.” If you’re a voice-activated Internet of Things (IoT) device, you don’t repeat things, but you may transmit them.

Voice-activated IoT devices (which, for this piece, includes smartphones and televisions) are always there, just like that pirate’s parrot. You know the services: Siri, Google Assistant, Cortana and Amazon’s Alexa. Mostly, these fine-featured friends are waiting for their activation command — listening, not recording. When activated, they gather the particulars of your life and beam them into a cloud server where your day-to-day existence is, at least in some basic ways, made better, the improvement generally taking the form of convenience or efficiency.

But all the value adds of having a digital assistant come at a personal price that many privacy advocates — including me — worry may come at a cost much higher than the price of, say, the device you need to access the service.

The price is your privacy.

Unfortunately, it is a murder case in Bentonville, Arkansas, that most forcefully highlights one of the more complex privacy issues connected to digital assistant IoT technology these days.

In November 2015, a former Georgia police officer named Victor Collins was found floating facedown in a hot tub owned by Bentonville resident James Andrew Bates. There were traces of blood at the scene, and a coroner later determined that Collins had died of strangulation and partial drowning. The smart water meter installed at Bates’ house indicated that 140 gallons of water — much more than usual — had been used on the night of Collins’ death. That pointed to post-murder cleaning. There was physical evidence at the scene, but the prosecutor wanted to know if there was more information hiding on the Amazon Echo that had been streaming music when Collins died. There was the possibility that the device had stored 60 seconds, which is what it is equipped to do, and that it might still be on the physical device. Amazon declined to help with the investigation. (Amazon did not immediately respond to Credit.com’s request for comment.)

Why This Raises Questions

It should be said that the producers of digital assistants aren’t trying to create a better pirate parrot. They aren’t in the business of mindless repetition. They are in the business of learning more about you so they can sell you things, or helping others do that, or selling what they know about you to a third party that can use it to make money.

There is so much information potentially. Consumers use digital assistants to help with travel, email and messages; they listen to music, check out sports scores and the weather. They can keep a calendar in order, post to social media, translate documents and search the internet. (When it comes to criminals, these devices could be seen as the digital equivalent of a stupid accomplice.)

Murder isn’t the best backdrop for discussions about privacy, but unfortunately the protections guaranteed by our courts is nowhere in evidence at the consumer level, so it is often the mise-en-scéne for this kind at article.

If you’re a parrot, you repeat things. If you’re an Amazon Echo at a murder scene, you give rise to serious questions about the expectation of privacy in a consumer landscape that has turned personal preference into a commodity. Increasingly geared toward the conveniences of radical personalization, a digital assistant knows how you like things in your home, but given the inevitability of hacking and data compromises, that means that at least potentially all that information could be used against you — and not just in your personal battle to resist temptation in the marketplace and save money.

Without a doubt, it would be easier to talk about the cost of convenience when it comes to digital assistance were we dealing with a case revolving around hacked information used to burglarize a home, or the purloined daily schedule of a popular celebrity who was (supply your own verb) as a result of leaked data. For that matter, it would be easier to talk about plug-and-play cameras that can’t be made secure no matter what you do. But until there’s a body, it seems, no one pays attention, and so these outlier situations are often how privacy becomes a topic for discussion.

The digital assistant as a privacy issue may not be a problem for you — some people feel they have nothing to hide — but it is for sure something consumers need to think about before transmitting their lives to the cloud where it may be only a matter of time, or bad luck, before a hacker streams it for laughs or loot.

Remember, if you’ve been the victim of identity theft, don’t blow it off. A good way to start taking action is by checking your credit — warning signs can include accounts you never opened and sudden drops in your scores. You can view two of your credit scores for free on Credit.com.

This story is an op-ed contribution to Credit.com and does not necessarily represent the views of the company or its partners.

Image: Amazon

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Wells Fargo, Amazon Nix Their Private Student Loan Deal

private-student-loans

Wells Fargo and Amazon appear to have ended their private student loan partnership.

Just six weeks after announcing that Amazon Prime members were eligible for interest rate discounts on the bank’s private student loan products, traces of the deal were removed from the online retailer’s student-centric site. Wells’ previously Amazon-focused landing page also now redirects to the bank’s generic private student loan landing page.

A spokesperson for Wells Fargo confirmed via an email to Credit.com that the promotion had ended but did not respond to request for comment as to why. Amazon similarly confirmed the promotion had ended via an email without giving a reason why.

The promotion, announced July 21, offered Prime members and their co-signers a potential 0.50% base interest rate discount on all Wells Fargo private student loan products. They were also eligible for a 0.25% interest rate reduction if they enrolled in Wells Fargo’s automatic monthly loan repayment plan.

The bank’s website currently lists the the variable interest rates on its private student loans as ranging from 3.39% to 9.03%. Its fixed interest rates range from 5.94% to 10.93%.

The promotion’s end comes on the heels of Wells’ agreement to pay a $3.6 million civil penalty to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to settle allegations of illegal student loan servicing practices. (The bank declined to answer questions as to whether the two were directly related.)

Private Student Loans 101

Given the climbing cost of a college education, many students may be thinking of taking on a private student loan to cover their tuition. But it’s important to do your research before applying because these loans typically tout variable interest rates that, unlike the fixed rate associated with federal student loans, can fluctuate with market conditions. They also have fewer borrower protections than federal loans. (For instance, private student lenders are not required to offer forbearance or deferment options.) And, particularly if your credit is not in tip-top shape, the interest rate on these loans can climb quite high. (You can view two of your credit scores for free each month on Credit.com.)

If you do decide to take on a private student loan, be sure to read the terms and conditions carefully to find the best financing for you. Repayment plans tend to vary by lender, and some charge fees to process forbearance and deferment requests. You can learn more about what to watch out for when applying for private student loans here.

Image: BraunS

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Your Amazon Account Could Get You a Lower Rate on Your Student Loans

wells-fargo-amazon

Wells Fargo is sweetening the deal on its private student loans for members of Amazon Prime Student, both companies announced Wednesday.

Amazon Prime Student members who apply for any of Wells Fargo’s private student loan products are eligible for a 0.50% interest rate discount, according to the bank’s site. Members can also get a 0.25% interest rate reduction for enrolling in the lender’s automatic monthly loan repayment plan. Co-signers who use Amazon Prime Student may also be eligible for the discount.

Keep in mind, the discount will only apply to new loan applications received on or after July 21 of this year, and as with any loan application, borrowers will be subject to a credit check, a loan/consumer credit agreement, verification of application information, and possibly school certification of loan amount and enrollment at a Wells Fargo–participating school. Though students are not required to make payments while they’re still in school, the repayment period kicks in 6 months after graduation or upon leaving.

Amazon Prime Student offers a free six-month trial, after which students are eligible to receive 50% off of Amazon Prime, which amounts to around $49 each year. Students are eligible for this discount on Prime for up to four years, or until they’re no longer a student.

According to Wells Fargo’s website, the variable interest rates on its private student loans range from 3.39% to 9.03%. Its fixed interest rates range from from 5.94% to 10.93%.

If a borrower qualifies for the lowest interest rate within those ranges, a 0.50% reduction would be applied to that rate with the Amazon Prime Student discount, a spokesman for the bank said in an email.

To take advantage of that discount, prospective borrowers need to be confirmed Amazon Prime Student members. Once the terms of the loan are agreed upon between Wells Fargo and the customer, those remain the terms throughout the life of the loan, unless the borrower moves to refinance or take other action, the spokesman said.

Private Student Loans

Remember, if you’re considering a private student loan to help you pay for college, it’s important to do your homework before you apply to make sure it’s right for you and your finances. Unlike federal student loans, which guarantee a fixed, low-interest rate, private loans are often variable-rate commercial loans, and as we mentioned above, require credit checks. If you’re not sure where your credit stands or are concerned that you have poor credit, now’s the time to find out for sure. (You can view a free summary of your credit report that is updated monthly by visiting Credit.com.)

During the application process, be sure to ask questions that will help you determine whether the loan will become a burden or a boon to your finances — and to your credit. You’ll want to find out whether there is an origination fee, which many lenders charge, if there are late fees and how much they cost, and whether the lender offers deferment due to economic hardship or unemployment. Also, be sure to ask if the lender offers forbearance, which acts as a pause button for your payments. To learn more about the various repayment options student loan borrowers have, you can go here.

More on Student Loans:

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