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One of the hottest-selling tech gadgets of the winter holiday season was the Amazon Echo, a nifty little Internet-connected “personal assistant” device that people can activate with just their voices. Increasingly, these Internet-connected devices are making their way into every aspect of our lives, including the way we use social media.
The Internet of Things in everyday life
Think about watches, for example. The Apple Watch is helping to popularize the notion that you might want to get the latest tweets or Facebook updates delivered to your wrist throughout the day. If you’re out for a long run, for example, you could stay connected to the massive Twitterverse without missing anything.
But there’s a flip side to all this, of course. And that’s that these same devices are also recording a digital trail of everything we do, all day. In some cases – such as with devices like the Nest Cam – they are capturing video or photographic images of us throughout the day. Collectively, these devices are known as the “Internet of Things” – devices that are hooked up to the Internet and sharing data in the cloud.
You can immediately see how the Internet of Things could change the way we think about social media. All of our Instagram photos, Facebook updates, and tweets can be used to construct an interesting psychographic profile of what we were thinking or doing at a certain point in time. And once it’s shared to the cloud – via our phones, watches or cameras – it becomes Internet data that could be accessible to anyone.
Our digital trails
For now, that’s especially valuable when it comes to tracking down criminal or illegal activity. What’s the first thing that happens after any terrorist attack? The investigators comb through social media, looking for clues. They find out which groups a person was part of, which search terms they were Googling, or what sorts of tweets he or she was sending out before the attack. With mobile phone data, they can go one step further – they can begin to track down a person by geographic location.
And that’s where the Internet of Things comes into the picture. Investigators now have a potential new tool for tracking activities and actions. For example, anytime you give a command to “Alexa” (the voice assistant for the Amazon Echo), the device begins recording what you say, and that data is then stored in the cloud. The key insight here is that the device hears EVERYTHING – not just your voice, but also, potentially, voices or noises in the background.
The Amazon Echo murder case
And now the Amazon Echo is at the center of a murder investigation in Arkansas, in which sounds recorded at home during an interaction with Alexa might provide some important clues to a bizarre case – a guy invites some buddies over to watch a football game and in the morning, there’s a dead body in the backyard. Prosecutors want access to the Amazon Echo data, confident that it can help to shed some light on the murder case. The defendant, of course, is trying to block this on privacy grounds.
And there’s one more wrinkle to this case. The murder suspect also had a “smart” water meter hooked up to the house. So investigators now think that they can use data from this water meter to figure out if there was a spike in water activity in the middle of the night of the murder. That might give clues as to whether or not the suspect was using water to clean out the house and backyard of any blood or clues.
You can think of this as a test case for the Internet of Things and social media. We want our devices to be “smart” and “social” – but we also don’t want them turning into “tattletales” that know too much about us. (If you’re a teenager, for example, you don’t want your devices “tattling” to your parents that you were trying to access certain websites.)
So the next time you start chatting with your Amazon Echo or strike up a conversation with a seemingly innocuous Twitter chatbot, keep one thing in mind: you’re creating a digital trail that’s now being recorded.