One hang-up: If there are multiple Echo devices in earshot, the nearest one always replies. For students who shared a dorm room who each had an Echo, that was a problem.
But they quickly figured out that if they changed the wake word of one of them (Echo, Amazon and computer are all possibilities) they could each get information from their own accounts.
Amazon is already present on some college campuses, where students can pick up Amazon delivery purchases at special Amazon lockers. But extending Amazon Echo and Alexa’s platform to these younger customers is newer ground.
It also raises thorny privacy questions for young adults who are living in close quarters and usually living on their own for the first time.
Alexa can’t differentiate between different people’s voices, so a prying roommate could be an issue, said Paul Bischoff, a privacy advocate with Comparitech.com, a security and privacy review site.
“There’s also the problem of third parties simply overhearing otherwise private information spoken aloud by Alexa,” he said.
Some sensitive information isn’t accessible at all. For example, if a student asks for their grades or about a financial hold on their accounts, the platform gives them the contact details for the responsible university personnel, said Saha.
Neither Amazon nor the university store personalized information from the skill about what students ask or how they use the skill. The developers do get to see in aggregate how popular certain topics are, which helps them hone the skill as more students use it.
The “born digital” generation is remarkably savvy about its digital privacy, so students may be able to figure out how to adapt to privacy vulnerabilities.
“They might be adapting their behavior and routines to which platform they’re one. They could use the phone for some questions, Alexa for others,” said Leah Plunkett, a law professor at the University of New Hampshire and fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University.
Which isn’t to say someone won’t find a way to misuse it, whether as a prank or simply at a late-night drunken party.
“I’d be surprised,” said Plunkett, “if you don’t see a genre of hilarious but privacy-invading stories about Alexa in college dorm rooms.”