“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.”
― George Orwell, 1984
The Orwellian future with Big Brother watching our every move and listening to every conversation, seemed like only one of many possible futuristic outcomes and light years away when I read 1984 in grammar school. Then Alexa and other voice-assisted devices entered the world and caused me to rethink a possible dystopian future where machines become more and more while humans become less and less because of their own desire for comfort and ease.
These devices are typically placed in living rooms and kitchens and are capable of listening to private conversations, although their makers claim they are only supposed to be activated when a specific command word or phrase is triggered. Last week, an incident cited by Amazon as an “extremely rare occurrence,” happened in Portland, Oregon, when Alexa recorded a personal conversation and sent the audio file to a random person on a couple’s contact list. Frightened by this threatening display of “Big Brother”, the family immediately unplugged all their Alexa-powered devices. How did this happen and what does it mean?
According to Amazon, this is how it happened:
“Echo woke up due to a word in background conversation sounding like “Alexa.” Then, the subsequent conversation was heard as a “send message” request. At which point, Alexa said out loud “To whom?” At which point, the background conversation was interpreted as a name in the customers contact list. Alexa then asked out loud, “[contact name], right?” Alexa then interpreted background conversation as “right”. As unlikely as this string of events is, we are evaluating options to make this case even less likely.”
Back in March, Alexa was caught laughing without any commands being given, startling users as they were going about their day. Some, hearing the eerie laughter even thought a stranger was in their home.
These devices are always on and await a call to action, but have we thrown our privacy out the window along with the box that Alexa came in? Critics say we have. The above episode underscored the concerns swirling around about Echo and other smart speakers, like Google Home and Apple’s Home Pod. Not only do some say they pose a threat to security, but children have been ordering items through them without parental consent.
Despite these events, the technology has been widely embraced. The polling organization Gallup and Northeastern University reported that about one in five American adults use an intelligent home device such as Alexa, Google Home or other competing devices. And sales continue to climb.
The problem exists that much of the information stored in these devices may be stored on servers outside the country, although Amazon says they’ve build in multiple layers of privacy protection into the home assistants. Still, they maintain recordings of all conversations recorded after the initial command because it assists the device in getting used to speech recognition. And, as has already been demonstrated, it records conversations without the use of a command. Users can delete voice recording histories at their discretion. Hopefully, before it’s send to an unsuspecting contact on your list.
1. Amazon Echo secretly recorded a family’s conversation and sent it to a random person on their contact list. CNBC.