We’ve all seen it in a bunch of sci-fi movies in the past few decades where the AI (artificial intelligence) of some kind of device or program breaks free from its restraints and design. It then decides to become the master of its own fate.
And since technology in real life has only been advancing, the introduction of, what could one day be, ‘artificial intelligence’ is starting to show. From voice recognition software to predictive messaging, to music and media recommendations – software and programs are acting more and more like humans every single day. And one of these very same programs, one we’re all familiar with, is Amazon Alexa.
Cases of Alexa Invading User Privacy
Back in 2017, Martin Josephson returned to his home in London to find his Amazon Echo Dot blurting out random noises and commands. These seemed to be somewhat related to his previous uses of the device. The spoken commands were train ticket requests and TV show recordings.
Despite Josephson’s attempts, the device wouldn’t stop. But what made Josephson (not his actual name) so uneasy about this was his history with the company. Years prior, he actually worked for Amazon. Not only this, but one of his stints at the company entailed him saying random commands into a microphone, for a reason he didn’t know at the time.
What Happened with Amazon Echo?
It was only when the Amazon Echo came into the market that he realized what was happening. Following this realization, Josephson claimed to have ‘felt a bit foolish’. He said, ‘having seen how they used people’s data, I knew I couldn’t trust them.’ Through both curiosity, and the actual desire to have one, Josephson purchased an Echo Dot after its launch. He found it to be a useful device – at least until it went off the brink.
During his return to the Dot’s random spurts of noise, he decided to unplug it and chuck it in the bin. Was this a simple malfunction, or was his Alexa invading user privacy? But Josephson isn’t the only one to have encountered issues.
In 2018, an Amazon customer based in Germany received over 1,000 audio files. These files had all come from someone else’s Amazon Echo. Not only this, but these audio files had a lot of personal detail in them. The recipient could name and locate this user and their partner if he wanted to.
The scope of these devices is something that many people don’t seem to fully grasp. Earlier this year, the company’s vice-president of devices said that over 100 million Alexa-enabled devices had been sold. One in five adults in the US now owns some kind of home voice-assistant. Over half of which are Amazon devices. It’s this very reason that so many people consider the invention of the Alexa a milestone in human history. A dream to some, a nightmare to others.
Many consider voice-assisted devices to lie on the fine line between privacy and efficiency. A great tool to have around the home, yet something that’s there, either listening or waiting for permission to listen.
With so many languages, dialects and accents throughout the world, creating a device that can understand and decipher all of these is near-impossible. That’s why most of this legwork is performed via ‘the cloud’. This means that real people can collect the data from these recordings. It’s this human-to-human monitoring that makes most uneasy.
What Do People Think?
Surely this is Alexa invading user privacy, think some. But not all voice-assisted devices work in exactly the same way. Apple, for example, makes their users’ privacy one of the primary focuses of their devices, encrypting the data at both ends. The only downside is that Apple’s home devices aren’t quite as accurate in their understanding and executing of commands.
So, users are stuck between a lack of privacy but better usability, or better privacy with a lack of usability. Most have opted for better usability, which is telling on its own.
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What is the US Government Doing?
The US government has tried to avoid stepping in on the matter. However, back in 2015, EPIC (Electronic Privacy Information Center) requested an investigation into these ‘always on’ devices, such as voice-assistant. They are yet to receive any kind of response.
Many people back this idea because the companies aren’t being open enough about what they can or can’t hear. Although ordinary civilians listening to a private conversation is a crime under the Federal Wiretap Act, it seems that these big corporations can get away with it. Because of this lack of regulation, there’s nothing to prevent these devices and their customers from being exploited.
How Do These Devices Work?
As these devices are ‘always on’, they’re always listening, and just waiting to be activated by certain commands. But even hearing the television, the radio, or other noise, they can help decipher what these customers are about, their favorite TV shows, jobs, hobbies, and working life and schedule. All things that Amazon customers aren’t told about. They have essentially become a method of constant surveillance. The kind of thing that’s ridiculed in TV shows and movies.
This kind of constant monitoring and surveillance is prevalent in George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, or Charlie Brooker’s ‘Black Mirror’. But with the sheer number of voice-activated devices currently sitting in homes, there’s no doubt that many of the same people that loathe the idea of being constantly watched are the very ones that are allowing companies to do just that.
To quote Orwell himself, “You had to live – did live, from habit that became instinct – in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard.”
What About Amazon Echo Show?
The Amazon Echo Show has drawn more comparison to TVs. This is a new Amazon smart device that has a screen and a camera. But with these new features, these devices can be constantly watching as well as listening.
Some people even find the fact that the default voice of these devices is almost always female. This indicates some societal preconception of knowledge or trustworthiness being something many people consider women to have more of than men. Or perhaps some other reason entirely. Is Alexa invading user privacy in this sense?
There’s also a growing fear that official organizations – both within the US and worldwide – will make attempts to access some of the voice-assistant data and recordings. They claim it to be for the purpose of crime prevention, criminal monitoring or security.
An example of this could be seen last year, as during a double-murder investigation, a judge from New Hampshire requested with a court order some of Amazon’s Echo’s recordings for the purpose of evidence.
How to Protect Yourself
What’s to stop all governments worldwide taking such drastic action, and eliminating our privacy completely? Rotenberg comments on this by saying, “why not just run the audio stream straight to a government surveillance agency and argue that it’s to reduce crime in the house?” The difficulty lies in getting the balance between user privacy and user safety.
But it’s important to remember that, although these devices might overstep boundaries that customers aren’t exactly made aware of, they are still optional. Although CCTV cameras on public transport and busy spaces can’t be avoided, Alexa can only enter your home if you allow it to. And it’s always in a place that you’re completely aware of it.
So many opt simply not to use it. It begs the question – if everyone knew what Alexa was capable of, how many people would still have it in their home? But many feel like challenging these inventions is, in a way, slowing down the future of society. This includes what this technology has to offer. CCTV may have been controversial at the time. But as society has slowly gotten used to it, it’s much more of a help than a hindrance.
By limiting these devices’ usability in just the smallest ways, it stops interfering and spying on us, and is simply a device for our convenience. Much like a mobile phone.
If the rest of this industry was to follow on with what Apple has done, the whole attitude to this would be completely different. But, of course, the companies don’t want this. The data they can gather from so many users is very valuable. They’ll do anything they can to avoid this change in culture.
Jeremy Gillula believes that this perfect balance can be found, and is, therefore, designing his own voice-assistant device. This device prioritizes privacy over usability. “I’m not 100% satisfied yet,” he claims, “but it will turn the lights on and off.”
Is Alexa invading user privacy from your experience? Drop a comment to let us know!