St. Louis University in Missouri will become the first college in the United States to install Alexa-enabled Amazon Echo Dots in all dorm rooms on the campus, according to Fortune. With Amazon under fire by some privacy activists about its devices listening, recording, and tracking everything people say who are near the devices, the move could raise serious legal questions about students’ rights.
Earlier this week, the university announced that it plans to install 2,300 of the Dots in all residence halls and student apartments on campus before classes begin at the end of the month. With thousands of students staying on campus, Amazon will now potentially have 2,300 listening devices that could record what students are saying all day.
The university claims the Dots will be programmed to answer hundreds of questions from students, ranging from where buildings are located on campus to a list of upcoming public forums to student activities.
The Dots will not be supported by the university network system, but will be managed by Amazon Web Services.
This means that Amazon will oversee, monitor, and handle the Dots and all of the information they record from the resident halls on campus.
Amazon claims students personal information will not be retained, but they have had numerous complaints in which the devices were using information to create advertisements for users online. In some cases, the devices sent information it overheard to contacts in people’s cell phones.
As an example, if a person mentions wanting a certain type of food near an Amazon product, they reported seeing ads online for what they mentione,d because the device is linked to their email account and, likely, social media.
As noted by Mic, the voice-controlled personal assistant Alexa and other similar devices send audio clips of what it hears people say to a server, which is controlled by Amazon.
Then, the Amazon server formulates a response and sends it back through the audio of the device.
If there will be 2,300 Dots on campus, it would be safe to assume that the devices will likely hear thousands of people every day. Some conversations might be harmless, others may be more personal.
What if they are hacked? What if the device reports something that a student or individual believed to be private?
Do students not have a right to privacy in their own dorms, where they are essentially paying rent through loans or grants to live?
These are just a few serious questions many have about the university’s plan, and why it felt necessary to give Big Brother even more power to listen and record thousands of students. What’s the university getting in return from the mammoth company?