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ALEXA, ARE YOU LISTENING TO ME?
Did you hear the story from Danielle in Portland about the hardwood flooring discussion Alexa recorded and sent to her husband’s colleague? When this item hit the news cycle all the technology alarmists came out of the woodwork to say, “See, I told you.” I took note of the story and the subsequent explanation by Amazon. While the explanation initially seems improbable and unlikely, upon further consideration it is certainly plausible. In the days since the story circulated, I have been in multiple homes where I have noticed Alexa and other digital assistants conspicuously unplugged.
Perhaps back in 1981 Daryl Hall & John Oates may have been onto something with the release of their single “Private Eyes”. You’ll likely recall lyrics from the chart-topping song, “They’re watching you, they see your every move.” As Daryl, John and the rest of us have worried for decades about “them” watching “us” a new threat has emerged. In the 2011 – 2016 CBS American science fiction crime drama “Person of Interest,” we were introduced to The Machine. The Machine was a super-sized artificially intelligent device capable of collating all sources of voice and digital information to accurately predict actions by specific individuals. While the show focused on criminal actions, it’s not too much of a leap to consider how targeted web advertising came about based on our online search history being “recorded”. What if these companies start using everyday conversations in our homes as input to their advertising algorithms?
So, the question on everyone’s mind now is, are these digital assistants always listening? The companies responsible for these digital assistants all claim the devices only listen and record conversations after a ‘wake word’ is spoken. If that isn’t enough comfort for you then turning the device off when it’s not being used or simply unplugging it should ease ongoing concerns. If that is the camp you find yourself in I’m not going to try and convince you otherwise; however, the social backlash and lack of consumer confidence that these companies would be subject to if they started monitoring all your conversations and then using that data to further enhance those advertising algorithms would be crippling.
I think our digital assistants should work more like the Amazon Tap or your phone with the “always listening” mode turned off. I prefer starting my digital assistant manually and then enjoying the convenience it provides, rather than wondering if my audible musings while I prepare the daily supper (that the kids don’t like) will influence the next ad I see when looking for the game score online the next morning. While I enjoyed the show “Person of Interest,” I don’t surmise that “The man in the suit” is lurking in the shadows to protect me from what The Machine has predicted.
Should you fear the potential security risks and privacy tradeoffs you assume when bringing smart technology into your home? First, you should consider how concerned you were with the security and privacy settings the last time you created a free social media account. Second, you should be inquisitive and consciously consider device settings. Lastly, don’t assume every device is a wiretap or a paperweight; the reality for you and your devices is likely somewhere in between.