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And now comes the biggest proof yet that we are living in an era of surveillance capitalism: digital devices like the Amazon Echo are getting inside our homes and recording snippets of our conversations throughout the day and night. They are literally eavesdropping on us, and then using that data to learn even more about us.
Privacy concerns with Alexa
If you think about it, our homes have always been an “off limits” territory for other people to gather information about us and track us. It’s the reason why we put curtains in our bedrooms and why we don’t allow people to record private conversations with us in the living room. Nobody in their right mind would allow someone to wiretap all of their phone conversations, or allow anyone to record what goes on behind closed doors with hidden surveillance cameras. That would be viewed as a clear invasion of privacy. Isn’t that what authoritarian states do, in order to keep their citizens under tight control?
And, yet, that is exactly what the big tech companies are doing. Amazon is perhaps the biggest player here, thanks to the popularity of its Echo devices and Alexa personal assistant. Using just your voice, you can ask Alexa almost anything – such as finding a recipe for you while cooking, or giving you the time when your favorite sports team will be playing next. But there’s just one problem here – Amazon records everything (everything!) that you say as soon as you start a conversation with, “Alexa…”
And it gets worse than that – Amazon never deletes any of those conversations, creating a permanent archive (or dossier, if you will) of your life. In some cases, judges have actually gotten warrants for Alexa recordings, to see exactly what was being said before, during or after a criminal incident. In other cases, Alexa has sent recordings of intimate conversations to random people. Imagine showing up to work one day and seeing your co-workers standing around in a circle giggling as they discuss what you and your spouse were talking about last night. (Yikes!)
Time for consumers to become more proactive
So what can consumers do in the face of what has been called a “brazen data grab”? The obvious answer is simply not to buy these devices and put your head in the sand. But we live in an era of the Internet of Things, so if it’s not Amazon’s Alexa eavesdropping on you, it will be your thermostat, your doorbell camera or your toaster. If you are buying these “smart home” devices, make sure you understand what the default privacy settings are, and with whom these devices are sharing data. As best as possible, you need to be able to limit the extent to which intimate details of your personal life are being shared with the entire Internet.