Really Alexa?

Listening Ear, no privacy.

I am coming across lots of articles waxing lyrical about how virtual assistants like Alexa or Cortana will change our lives, the way we interact with computers, companies and each other. These devices are incredibly popular and it is assumed they will become common in most households much in the way smartphones have.


Am I really the only person to think “I’m not having one of those in my house!”?

Who is listening?

Computers that we talk to have long been a staple of science fiction.  From Hal in 2001, to ORAC in Blake’s 7, to Holly in Red Dwarf. In none of these stories, however, is the computer sending back everything it heard to a commercial company whose primary driver is making as much money as it can.

When are they listening?

The big difference between the new virtual assistants and existing voice-activated smartphones is that the VAs are listening All. The. Time. They say they are currently not recording anything you say before that, but they are still aware of it.

Some police certainly believe that they may be capable of recording more than they claim, as seen from this case where they are requesting access to someone’s Amazon recordings

(Resolution, the accused gave permission to Amazon to release the recordings


What are they doing with what they hear?

A very good question. I’m sure it tells you in the Terms and Conditions. You’ve read them, right?

I am surprised if you have. A few years ago someone calculated that it would take the average person 76 days to read all the terms and conditions they’ve signed up to. That assumes that they are sitting there reading for 8 hours a day. How many people can put their hand on their heart and say they have done this? Not very many at all…. So what that means in practice is that most of us don’t have a clue what we have agreed that companies can do with our data. We just vaguely trust that they are going to do the decent thing.


Our data is being stored, as, certainly with Alexa, you can go and listen to the requests you have made.


We already we get targeted advertisements based on what these systems know about us. But what else is this data being used for?


For example, have you heard of the Investigative Powers Act 2016? You know, the law that, among other things, requires UK internet providers to store browsing histories for one year. The law declared illegal by the ECJ as it is indiscriminate? Is that what you want? Every idle thought that crossed your mind that you asked Alexa about? Every joke present for a friend? Layable before the police for them to make of what they will?


Still so comfortable?

The thing George Orwell got wrong in 1984 was not the level of surveillance that people could be under but that a way would be found to make us adopt it ourselves rather than having it imposed upon us. There has never been such a highly surveilled society before. If the government ordered us all to carry tracking devices with us where ever we go there would (probably) have been uproar. As it is, huge numbers of us carry our phones with location tracking on. Guess what, it’s the same. There is a record of everywhere we go. It’s available to huge multi-nationals and it’s available to the government.


We get comfortable, we accept these things into our lives and then it never occurs to us to turn them off.


I am a huge believer in privacy. Some people say that if you are doing nothing wrong then you have nothing to fear. I disagree. If you are doing nothing wrong then it’s nobody’s business but your own.  For example, just say (hypothetically speaking) that I am an huge fan of Mills and Boon type romantic novels while pretending to my friends that my tastes are more intellectual. Is that really the business of anybody else other than me and my bookseller? What is wrong with me deciding to keep that secret, why should I not have the right to do so? Arguments that if I have the right to keep things secret then terrorists can’t be caught are lazy. Law enforcement agents need to discriminate which information they need to see.


What is the future?


Privacy seems so old hat, people who don’t want to be on social media sharing the details of their life are seen as weird or past it. However, there is nothing wrong with choosing who you want to tell information to, without leaving a permanent record of it.


I know that I have given away a lot of information about myself already via my use of my computer and smart phone but for me a device permanently listening to everything happening in my house is a step too far.


Maybe you are happy to share this much information about yourself. But are you sure that you are choosing to do it, not just falling into it because it never occurs to you to turn things off?


What do you think? Are you comfortable sharing your personal information or are you concerned about how your information is being used?

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