‘Alexa Guard’ Security Feature Rolls Out to Amazon Echo Devices in the US

Amazon announced this morning that Alexa Guard is now rolling out to all Echo device owners in the U.S.


The free feature update, which has been trialed by a select few over the last few months, turns Echo speakers into security devices when no-one's home by allowing them to listen for key sounds indicating danger or intrusion.

Users need to say "Alexa, I'm leaving" to set Alexa Guard to Away mode, after which the device will listen for sounds like breaking glass and the sound of smoke alarms and carbon monoxide alarms.

According to TechCrunch, Amazon has worked with licensed contractors to break hundreds of different glass windows with different instruments in order to create a wide range of different sounds for Alexa to listen for.

Upon detecting an ominous sound, Alexa sends the owner Smart Alerts via phone notifications. Users can also play the detected sound from the Alexa mobile app or Drop In on their Echo device remotely to find out what's happening.

Alexa can arm a Ring or ADT security system, with the user able to choose to forward Smart Alerts they receive to Ring or ADT. Users with Away Lighting can also use the alert to turn on lights so as to make it look like they're actually home.

For more details about Alexa Guard, check out Amazon's FAQ.


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Amazon Rumored to Launch High-Fidelity Music Streaming Platform By End of 2019

Amazon is reportedly readying a high-fidelity music streaming service that's set to launch by the end of the year. According to Music Business Worldwide, Amazon is in discussions with various large music rights-holders regarding the upcoming launch of the new streaming platform, which is likely to cost $15 per month.

"It's a better bit rate, better than CD quality," one source told MBW. "Amazon is working on it as we speak: they're currently scoping out how much catalog they can get from everyone and how they'll ingest it."
Probably the best known hi-def music streaming service currently is Tidal's HiFi plan, which costs $19.99 per month and offers CD-quality lossless streams at 44.1 kHz / 16 bit. Subscribers to the plan also benefit from Tidal's partnership with MQA (Master Quality Authenticated) to deliver guaranteed master-quality recordings directly from the master source, which is billed as "an audio experience that the artist intended."

The rationale behind this is that while HiFi audio is a superior sound, it's still limited to 44.1 kHz / 16 bit resolution, whereas MQA audio is the highest possible resolution (typically 96 kHz / 24 bit). MBW understands that Amazon has not partnered with MQA for its own HD tier, suggesting it will use a different audio technology. It's not clear though whether the hi-fi service will be a standalone platform or a new tier option to be offered as part of Amazon's Music Unlimited service.

Apple Music streams 256kbps AAC files across the board and doesn't offer users a higher sound quality price plan, while Spotify uses the Ogg Vorbis format and lets Premium subscribers choose the bitrate depending on how they're listening. On mobile you can elect to stream in Low (24 kbit/s), Normal (96 kbit/s), High (160 kbit/s) or Very High (320 kbit/s) quality, which is handy if you're worried about using up your cellular data, but none of these options could be called "hi-fidelity" streaming.

News of Amazon's plans for a hi-fi audio streaming service comes a week after Amazon launched a free, ad-supported music streaming service for owners of devices that support Alexa, but who are otherwise not Prime or Amazon Music Unlimited subscribers.

Tag: Amazon

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Employees Who Listen to Amazon Alexa Requests Have Access to Customers’ Home Addresses

Earlier this month, Bloomberg shared details on the thousands of employees that Amazon employs around the world to listen to voice recordings captured in the homes of Amazon Echo owners when the Alexa wake word is spoken, with the purpose of improving the service.

There was some concerning information in the report, including employee access to private recordings, recordings that are upsetting or potentially criminal, and an employee tendency to share private recordings in group work chat environments. As it turns out, there's something Alexa owners should be even more worried about -- some of these employees have access to the home addresses of Amazon customers.


In a new report on the team Amazon employs to listen to Amazon Echo recordings, Bloomberg says that employees have access to location data and can "easily find a customer's home address" by typing geographic coordinates into third-party mapping software. The new information was shared by five anonymous Amazon employees who spoke to Bloomberg.
Team members with access to Alexa users' geographic coordinates can easily type them into third-party mapping software and find home residences, according to the employees, who signed nondisclosure agreements barring them from speaking publicly about the program.

While there's no indication Amazon employees with access to the data have attempted to track down individual users, two members of the Alexa team expressed concern to Bloomberg that Amazon was granting unnecessarily broad access to customer data that would make it easy to identify a device's owner.
Bloomberg saw a demonstration where an Amazon team member pasted a user's coordinates (stored on Amazon's servers as latitude and longitude) into Google Maps, finding the address for the user linked to the recording in less than a minute. It's not clear how many people are able to access that system, though two Amazon employees said that until recently, the "vast majority" of workers in the Alexa Data Services group could use the software.

Certain employees on the data team listening to recordings have access to home and work addresses for customers along with phone numbers and access to their contacts if the person has chosen to share contacts with Alexa, all for the purpose of improving requests.

That employees can access specific location data for an individual customer is concerning because after the original report, Amazon had this to say: "Employees do not have direct access to information that can identify the person or account as part of this workflow."

In a new statement provided to Bloomberg, Amazon said something different, calling access to internal tools "highly controlled."
In a new statement responding to this story, Amazon said "access to internal tools is highly controlled, and is only granted to a limited number of employees who require these tools to train and improve the service by processing an extremely small sample of interactions. Our policies strictly prohibit employee access to or use of customer data for any other reason, and we have a zero tolerance policy for abuse of our systems. We regularly audit employee access to internal tools and limit access whenever and wherever possible."
Amazon, says Bloomberg, appears to be restricting the level of access that employees have to sensitive customer data, and after the original story, some of the workers who transcribe and annotate audio recordings no longer had access to software tools they had previously used.

Alexa users concerned with the data that's being collected and used by Amazon should make sure to enable all privacy features and uncheck the option for letting Amazon save Echo recordings.


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Alexa Support for Apple Music Expands to Sonos Speakers

Amazon Echo devices have been able to use Alexa-based voice commands to control Apple Music since December, but the feature has been limited to Amazon's own devices until today.

Sonos One and Sonos Beam owners in the United States, United Kingdom, and Ireland are now also able to use Alexa to control Apple Music after adding the Apple Music skill to the Alexa app.


To get Alexa controls for Apple Music on Sonos, users will need to update to the newest version of the Sonos app, enable the Apple Music skill in the separate Amazon Alexa app, and link an Apple Music account.

From there, Sonos owners will be able to use commands like "Play My Chill Mix on Apple Music," or "Play Beats 1 Radio on Apple Music."

It's not yet clear if other Alexa-enabled devices will also be gaining support for Apple Music controls in the future, but right now, the feature is available on all Amazon Echo and Fire TV devices along with the Sonos One and Sonos Beam.


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Thousands of Amazon Employees Listen to Alexa Requests for Improvement Purposes

Amazon has thousands of employees around the world that listen to voice recordings captured in the homes of Amazon Echo owners, reports Bloomberg.

Recordings are listened to, transcribed, annotated, and added back into the software as part of Amazon's effort to help Alexa better respond to voice commands. Amazon has facilities for Alexa improvement in places that range from Boston to Costa Rica, India, and Romania.


Seven people familiar with Amazon's review process spoke to Bloomberg and revealed some insider details on the program that may be concerning to Echo users.

While much of the work has been described as "mundane," employees have sometimes come across more private recordings, such as a woman singing off key in the shower or a child screaming for help. Amazon employees have internal chat rooms where they share files when help is needed parsing a word or, more concerning, when an "amusing recording" is found.

Two workers told Bloomberg that they've heard recordings that are upsetting or potentially criminal, and while Amazon claims to have procedures in place for such occurrences, some employees have been told it's not the company's job to interfere.
Sometimes they hear recordings they find upsetting, or possibly criminal. Two of the workers said they picked up what they believe was a sexual assault. When something like that happens, they may share the experience in the internal chat room as a way of relieving stress. Amazon says it has procedures in place for workers to follow when they hear something distressing, but two Romania-based employees said that, after requesting guidance for such cases, they were told it wasn't Amazon's job to interfere.
Alexa users have the option to disable the use of their voice recordings for improvements to the service, but some may not know that these options exist. Amazon also does not make it clear that actual people are listening to the recordings.

According to Bloomberg, recordings sent to employees who work on Alexa don't include a user's full name or address, but an account number, first name, and the device's serial number are associated with the recording.

In a statement to Bloomberg, Amazon said that an "extremely small" number of Alexa voice recordings are annotated and that there are measures in place to protect user identity.
We take the security and privacy of our customers' personal information seriously. We only annotate an extremely small sample of Alexa voice recordings in order [to] improve the customer experience. For example, this information helps us train our speech recognition and natural language understanding systems, so Alexa can better understand your requests, and ensure the service works well for everyone.

We have strict technical and operational safeguards, and have a zero tolerance policy for the abuse of our system. Employees do not have direct access to information that can identify the person or account as part of this workflow. All information is treated with high confidentiality and we use multi-factor authentication to restrict access, service encryption and audits of our control environment to protect it.
It is standard practice to use some recordings for product improvement. Apple has employees who listen to Siri queries to make sure the interpretation of a request lines up with what the person said. Recordings are stripped of identifiable information, however, and stored for six months with a random identifier.

Google too has employees who are able to access audio snippets from Google Assistant for the purpose of improving the product, but Google, like Apple, removes personally identifiable information and also distorts audio.

Amazon does not appear to be removing all personally identifiable information, and while the Echo is meant to collect audio only when a wake word is spoken, the employees who spoke to Bloomberg said they often hear audio files that appear to have started recording with no wake word at all.

Alexa users concerned with the data that's being collected and used by Amazon should make sure to enable all privacy features and uncheck the option for letting Amazon save Echo recordings. Additional details on how Amazon uses the voice recordings it collects can be found in the original Bloomberg article.


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Apple Music Now Available on Amazon’s Alexa Devices in the UK and Ireland

Amazon Echo and Fire TV devices in the UK and Ireland are now compatible with Apple Music, reports Pocket-lint.

In the United States, Amazon Echo models have supported Apple Music since December of last year, allowing Echo speakers to integrate directly with Apple's music service, but the functionality was not made available in other countries.


Amazon Echo owners in the UK can now install the Apple Music integration using the Amazon Alexa app for iPhone or iPad and then use Alexa commands to play songs, albums, and more from the Apple Music service.

As of mid-March, Apple Music is also available as an option on the Amazon Fire TV.


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Amazon Working on Alexa-Enabled Wireless Earbuds to Rival AirPods

Amazon is developing a set of Alexa-enabled wireless earbuds that will compete with Apple's AirPods, reports Bloomberg.

The earbuds will "look and act" similar to Apple's AirPods, but will offer built-in Alexa voice support. Alexa is Amazon's Siri rival, built into the Amazon Echo line of products and many other third-party devices.


Amazon is aiming to offer better audio quality than the AirPods, and its earbuds have been designed to sit inside the ears without clips to hold them in place. The Alexa wake word will allow Amazon earbuds users to access music, order goods, make search queries, and more, though physical gesture controls will also be available.

Built-in cellular connectivity will not be included, and the earbuds will need to connect to a user's smartphone. A storage case that also serves as a charging device will be included, and it will charge using a standard USB cable. Amazon is testing earbuds in black and gray.

There's no word on pricing for the earbuds, but Amazon often prices its products lower than Apple's, so Amazon earbuds could be available for $159 or less, the base price of the AirPods.

Bloomberg says that the new earbuds are considered one of the most important projects at Amazon's Lab126 hardware division, and while there have been delays, Amazon is now seeking suppliers and manufacturing partners.

Multiple companies have already come out with wire-free earbuds in an effort to compete with the AirPods. Google, for example, has the Pixel Buds while Samsung has the Galaxy Buds. There are also many other less impressive third-party wireless earbud options on the market, but so far, none have been able to match the popularity of Apple's AirPods.

Apple recently debuted second-generation AirPods with an H1 chip for faster connectivity to devices, Hey Siri support, and wireless charging.


The company's Beats brand also just yesterday announced Powerbeats Pro, a fitness-oriented AirPods alternative with more standard ear tips, an ear hook for keeping them in place, physical buttons and a longer battery life. The Powerbeats Pro also have many AirPods features including a charging case, H1 chip, and all of the same sensors and capabilities.

Tag: Amazon

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Apple Music Now Available on Amazon Fire TV

Amazon today expanded its Apple Music integration to the Amazon Fire TV, allowing Fire TV owners to ask Alexa to play songs from the Apple Music service.

According to CNBC, Apple Music on the Amazon Fire TV is available starting today.


The expansion comes three months after Apple allowed Apple Music to be streamed on Amazon Echo speakers using the Alexa voice assistant.

On the Fire TV, users can use commands like "Alexa, play music by Stevie Nicks," or "Alexa, play a Fleetwood Mac album" to play content directly from Apple Music.

It can be enabled by going to the Alexa app on an Android or iOS device and activating the Apple Music skill. Those who have already set up Apple Music with Alexa for Echo devices will not need to repeat the steps.

Right now, Apple Music is limited to the Fire TV and Amazon Echo speakers, though it may be expanded to third-party Alexa devices in the future.

Apple's effort to allow Apple Music to be streamed on third-party platforms is part of a deeper push to grow services revenue. Apple is also planning to expand iTunes to Samsung Smart TVs in the form of an iTunes app, and AirPlay 2 functionality is being built into recent smart TV sets from a number of manufacturers like Sony and LG.


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Apple Not Fighting Royalty Increase for Songwriters That Spotify, Pandora, Google and Amazon Have Appealed

Spotify, Google, Pandora, and Amazon have all teamed up to appeal a ruling by the U.S. Copyright Royalty Board that will increase royalties paid to songwriters by 44 percent, reports Variety.

In a joint statement, the companies, which all operate major streaming music services, said that the decision harms both music licensees and copyright owners.

"The Copyright Royalty Board (CRB), in a split decision, recently issued the U.S. mechanical statutory rates in a manner that raises serious procedural and substantive concerns. If left to stand, the CRB's decision harms both music licensees and copyright owners. Accordingly, we are asking the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to review the decision."
Apple is not joining the other streaming music services and will not appeal the decision. According to Variety, songwriter organizations have been heavily praising Apple while condemning the other streaming services.

David Israelite, CEO of the National Music Publishers' association, called the appeals from Spotify, Pandora, Google and Amazon "tech bullies who do not respect or value the songwriters who make their businesses possible."

He also thanked Apple Music for not participating in the appeal and for "continuing to be a friend to songwriters."


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Amazon Pulls Echo Wall Clock Over Connectivity Issues

Amazon has pulled its Echo Wall Clock over concerns about connectivity issues, just a little over a month since it began shipping the product.


The Wall Clock's lack of availability on the Amazon website was first spotted by The Wall Street Journal's Joanna Stern before being confirmed by Amazon in a statement given to The Verge.
"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."
Announced in September along with several other Alexa-enabled products, Amazon's Wall Clock costs $29.99 and performs the expected Alexa and Echo tasks while also telling the time.

It runs on four AA batteries and connects to Bluetooth and Wi-Fi for setup, but requires the user to own a standard Echo to access all the features, which include displaying timers on the clock face.

Customers who received a clock before they were delisted and have experienced connectivity issues are advised to contact Amazon to arrange a refund.


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