Jeff Bezos explains why the Echo is harder to hack than smartphones

Jeff Bezos
Gary Cameron | Reuters

Amazon's smart home device, Echo, has a unique and little-known privacy feature, Jeff Bezos, the company's founder and CEO explained on Thursday.

"We've done something a little unusual with Echo," Bezos said. "It would be no different from your phone, but we went one step further than what's done on a phone. When you hit the mute button on Echo, that red ring comes on that says the microphone is turned off. That mute button is connected to the microphone with analog electronics. You have to come physically tamper with the device. You couldn't do it with a computer virus."

Bezos at Vanity Fair's 2016 New Establishment Summit in San Francisco, where he was honored for his role in innovation. He said that Alexa — the name of Echo's voice activated assistant — represents "leaning in to the future."

But even as voice-activated assistants are heralded as the future, they raise concerns. For instance, The Executive Women's Forum this year established a a Voice Privacy Industry Group to establish principles to guide the new technology.

"One of the great issues of our age is going to be privacy," Bezos said. "People don't think about it, but if you have a mobile phone in your pocket, it has microphones on it, and those microphones are under software control. And I would posit to you that just about any nation state in the world worth its salt can put a computer virus on your phone, anytime they want, and listen to everything you say from your cellphone."

Alexa has "brains in the cloud," rather than in the device, so that it can continually get smarter. It uses deep learning, trying to understand your speech patterns. Though Bezos isn't sure how similar the underlying technology is, Alexa joins products like Apple's Siri that seek to reduce the inconvenience of everyday tasks. (Apple has also vigorously defended its phones' privacy features.)

"The fact that it's always on, you never have to charge it, and it's there ready in your kitchen or your bedroom or wherever you put it, the fact that you can talk to it in a natural way — removes a lot of barriers, a lot of friction," Bezos said. "It's easier than taking your phone out of your pocket. And what people have found over and over again is that removing the tiniest amount of friction from ordinary activities ... it improves customers' lives."

Focusing on customers, not competitors, has always been core to Amazon's mission. Bezos said that if you only measure your progress relative to how rivals are performing, you may be too tempted to slow down.

"The core of the company is customer obsession, as opposed to competitor obsession," Bezos said. "Customers are always dissatisfied. They always want more. And so they pull you along, if you're trying to serve them.... customers are always pulling you."