Jim Mullen: Alexa, spy on me
July 13, 2018
You've already heard the recent story: Amazon's voice-activated Echo device secretly recorded a couple's private conversations and then sent recordings to a random person. That's the short version, and it has several things wrong with it.
First, of course Alexa is listening to you. How would it hear the wake-up word "Alexa" if it didn't? It also records your every request — not to spy on you, but to get better at understanding what you want it to do.
If you say, "Alexa, put Shredded Wheat on my shopping list" once a month, then even if you slur your words one day, it will ask, "Did you want to add Shredded Wheat to your shopping list?" You can just imagine what would happen if your enemies got ahold of that.
Before we get to the invasion of privacy, imagine if your health care provider or your bank had designed Alexa. You would say, "I want to speak to a representative," and it would answer, "Yes, we will find you a cheesecake."
Compared to the average computer-voice interaction, asking Alexa to do something seems like magic. Even with my Southern accent, it only took a few days before it learned that when I say "Wendy" I don't mean "windy," and when I say "hair a cane," I mean "hurricane." I've also learned you can delete all those requests so no one can ever find out that I asked Alexa to play "Summer Wind" by Frank Sinatra a few days ago.
But if you really don't want it to listen in the background, waiting for you to ask it something, there's a well-marked button on top of the device with a picture of a microphone with a line through it. It's the off button for the microphone. Very handy if you have someone named Alexa living in your house.
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The second thing wrong with that story: The device didn't send the audio files to some random person, as widely reported. It sent them to someone in the family's contact list. You can use Alexa as a phone, but only if 1. The other person you're calling has an Echo device, and 2. They are on your contact list, and 3. They accept your invitation.
In short, you can set up Alexa so that all you have do is say, "Call Mom," and just start talking. Most modern cars let you set up your phone the same way. It's not rocket science; it's wonderfully convenient.
Nothing is perfect
Can unexpected things happen? Sure. Is it perfect? Well, that's a good question. What product is perfect, exactly? Is your car perfect? Your washing machine? Has your flight ever been delayed? Ever been stuck in traffic? Ever had a problem with your computer? Your phone? Or do they all work perfectly?
What is this fixation with being perfect? Does a month go by that some product doesn't get recalled? This month it was romaine lettuce, 4.5 million cars and Spam. And those are just the ones we heard about. But with millions of devices out there, this is the first time Alexa seems to have made a mistake.
"That's not a fair comparison," you might say. "Alexa was invading their privacy." Really? That device just walked into their home without them knowing it? Some spy planted it in the house without their knowledge? That's kind of like complaining your refrigerator is keeping things cold without telling you.
And what is privacy in this day and age? If you have a loyalty card from a grocery store, an airline or a credit card, they already know more about you than the IRS. My gym membership form asked me for more personal details than my doctor. My electric company wants my Social Security number. Why? Are they afraid someone else will pay my bill?
If I say "no," I can't read the story. How meta can you get?
Are devices like Alexa really the problem? As if Amazon doesn't already know everything about me.
Contact Jim Mullen at firstname.lastname@example.org.