In a new article, Don’t Buy Anyone an Echo, Gizmodo takes a firm stance against snooping gone too far in the form of Amazon’s home assistant, the Echo. This article confirms the warning we gave almost exactly a month ago, in our post, Why You Should NEVER Buy an Amazon Echo or Even Get Near One.
Mind you, this is not a case of the editors putting a headline on a story that exaggerates its thesis. The Gizmodo piece by Adam Clark Estes is unambiguously anti-Echo:
Three years ago, we said the Echo was “the most innovative device Amazon’s made in years.” That’s still true. But you shouldn’t buy one. You shouldn’t buy one for your family. You definitely should not buy one for your friends. In fact, ignore any praise we’ve ever heaped onto smart speakers and voice-controlled assistants. They’re bad!
After explaining how temping they are as one of this season’s hot gifts, and pretty, with options starting at a mere $30, the warning continues:
Your family members do not need an Amazon Echo or a Google Home or an Apple HomePod or whatever that one smart speaker that uses Cortana is called. And you don’t either. You only want one because every single gadget-slinger on the planet is marketing them to you as an all-new, life-changing device that could turn your kitchen into a futuristic voice-controlled paradise. You probably think that having an always-on microphone in your home is fine, and furthermore, tech companies only record and store snippets of your most intimate conversations. No big deal, you tell yourself.
Actually, it is a big deal. The newfound privacy conundrum presented by installing a device that can literally listen to everything you’re saying represents a chilling new development in the age of internet-connected things. By buying a smart speaker, you’re effectively paying money to let a huge tech company surveil you.
Estes points out that even though Amazon et al have sworn up and down that they aren’t spying, there’s no guarantee that they won’t change their minds, or avert their eyes while the NSA or GCHQ do the dirty work and toss back interesting findings or super useful code in payment. As we said in our November post:
CNET claims that Amazon uploads and retains voice data from the Echo only when it has been activated by calling to it and stops recording when the request ends. But given the Snowden revelations that every camera and microphone in computers and mobile devices can be and are used as viewing and listening devices even when the owner thinks they are off, I would not be so trusting. Even if Amazon isn’t listening and recording at other times, the NSA probably can. CNET adds:
Amazon Echo is always listening. From the moment you wake up Echo to the end of your command, your voice is recorded and transcribed. And then it’s stored on Amazon’s servers….
It’s unclear how long the data is stored, but we do know that it is not anonymized. And, for now, there’s no way to prevent recordings from being saved.
Reread the first paragraph. The Echo has to be listening at all times in order to respond to the “Alexa” command. So the only question is whether Amazon or some friendly member of the surveillance state is recording then too.
Even though you may think this is functionally equivalent to your risk exposure now if you carry a smartphone or tablet, since Edward Snowden revealed that they can be turned on remotely and used to record sound and images, the Echo is a big step further in a bad direction. First, the mikes in your laptop and phone aren’t designed to capture sound across an entire room. They no doubt do a great job when you are in close proximity, but they are likely much less effective when stuffed in a pocket or purse or in another room entirely. Second, the Echo sits on your home network and will be able to integrate the voice recordings with all sorts of other activity, giving a far more creepily complete picture of what you are doing at home.
As we pointed out in our post, an individual who has some knowledge of the military-surveillance complex stressed that one of the uses of Echo-gathered data would be greatly improved mapping of social networks:
The Echo was able to pick a voice out of a crowd engaged in conversation. That means it is capable of singling out individual voice. That means it has been identifying individual voices, tagging the as “Unidentified voice 1″, Unidentified voice 2” and so on. It has already associated the voices of its owners, and if they have set up profiles for other family members, for them as well, so it knows who goes with those voices.
Those voices may be unidentified now, but as more and more voice data is being collected or provided voluntarily, people will be able to be connected to their voice. And more and more recording is being done in public places.
So now think of that party I was at. At some time in the not too distant future, analysts will be able to make queries like, “Tell me who was within 15 feet of Person X at least eight times in the last six months.”
And that’s before you get to the risks posed by buggy software and hackers.
The article is very much worth reading in full, in particular for how it makes fun of why these products are seen as useful:
You don’t need an artificially intelligent robot to tell you about the weather every day. Just look outside or watch the local news or even look at your phone. You already do one or all of these things, so just keep it up. Same goes for turning on the lights. Use the switch. It works really well! A light switch also doesn’t keep track of everything you’re doing and send the data to Amazon or Google or Apple. What happens between you and the switch stays with you and the switch.
And it ends with this cheery note:
This is all to say that there are risks involved with owning a smart speaker. It’s not as risky as, say, running a meth lab out of your basement.
Me, I’m going in the other direction and buying myself Faraday bags for my soon to be slightly upgraded dumbphone and laptops. My current phone gets signal in so few places that between my hardly ever carrying it plus it being largely off the grid when I do means the surveillance state has a lousy profile of my pereginations. I’d like to keep it that way. If any of you have brands you like, please pipe up in comments.