Gizmodo Echoes Naked Capitalism: “Don’t Buy Anyone an Echo”

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.

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  1. moss

    I’ve had a Blackberry Bold – 3G I think – which was handed down to me four years ago. I’ve all Yves’ security and privacy concerns (probably even more) and never use the wifi so it’s solely a phone to me with voice and text messaging. Functionally with signal etc it seems excellent.

    As I understand it, Blackberry is a niche company selling high security products. Accordingly, I consider it highly unlikely it would jeopardise its reputation collecting user information for profiling, resale or distribution to third parties.

    Recently Blackberry has released Android OS phones and I assume anyone who permits g00gle scripting on any of their personal devices to be knowingly firing up their basement meth lab. However, many of the Blackberry OS phones are around. These allow complete control over the various permissions each app can have with respect to personally identifying data.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      I was looking for recommendations for Faraday bags, but I’ll look into an older Blackberry too. I need a 3G phone with no GPS chip, and am thinking about the Nokia 3300, since I already have a prepaid phone on a compatible network.

        1. Yves Smith Post author

          *Sigh* The point is “can locate” versus “you have all that data”.

          The phone companies retain calling data for when you use the phone (calls, text). They retain those records and you can be geolocated when using the phone. Court cases indicate that they do not retain the ping data. So not only is the record less accurate, if is incomplete, particularly for someone like moi who pretty much never uses a cell anyhow.

          Now if you become a Person of Interest (as in they have a warrant) they can and will keep your ping data too.

          Moreover, smart phone users almost without exception make vastly more frequent usage of the network, leaving a more comprehensive record.

          Although I have only searched intermittently on this topic, what I saw was that the intel services not only greatly prefer GPS data, they appeared to be trying to migrate the various intermediaries on focusing on that more in their records retention practices.

          By contrast, GPS data is stored on your phone. It’s in internal memory or on a memory card. I have not idea if when you synch with your computer if the default is to store in on your computer.

          And you act as if the difference in accuracy is a nothingburger when it is significant. See this discussion on reddit:

          Even in an urban environment with lots of towers, often the best you can do is a fraction of a square kilometer. In this diagram, for example, even with cell towers that cover a rather small radius, the best we can do is about 600′ accuracy, the largest circle that will cover the red shaded area…

          Practically speaking, this means that you can get GPS resolution of a few square meters as opposed to fractions of a square kilometer. Overall, GPS is significantly more accurate.

          The thread also discusses how time stamping of where you are isn’t as accurate with cell towers as GPS either, and that 4G phone will be much better at triangulation than earlier gen. I am looking at a 3G phones reluctantly (my current phone has erratic signal in Manhattan and other big cities by virtue of being 2G).

          Having said that, triangulation will apparently be more accurate with 4G(LTE) phones.

      1. Mark Alexander

        I’m revealing my ignorance and/or misunderstanding here, but I thought 3G was only applicable to internet service, not voice service. Shouldn’t an older phone with 2G (or no internet capability at all) still work fine for voice calls? From what you said earlier (“My current phone gets signal in so few places…”), that is apparently not true, and a bit troubling, since it implies that the cellular provider is forcing you to upgrade.

        1. visitor

          2G and 3G do both voice and data. LTE (current 4G instantiation) provides data, and may or may not provide voice directly depending on the way it is set-up.

          Telecom operators worldwide are slowly phasing out 2G to reuse the freed wireless bandwidth for 4G. Thus, in Japan and Australia 2G has already been largely or entirely shut down, and in the USA, AT&T has already wound up its 2G network. In some places, decommissioning took place unexpectedly: the Caribbean island of Sint Maarten was devastated by hurricane Irma, and the decision was taken not to repair the 2G network but to replace it with 4G.

          It looks as if many 2G networks will cease operating around 2020-2021. If you look for a entry-level device, or buy an old phone, select one which features at least 3G.

          1. Mark Alexander

            Thank you for the explanation. That shoots down my plan to use an old Palm Centro (AT&T 2G) as an emergency backup phone.

          2. Jeff

            Please note that 2G, 3G, 4G, LTE, Edge and other funny names refer only to the data part. You can live forever and place phone calls without any of these.

            1. visitor

              2/3/4G mean a complex of signalling protocols serving to connect devices to a network and to establish calls or data transfers, transfer protocols to carry voice or data (including coding and compression algorithms), wireless frequency bands over which those signalling and transfers take place, as well as a series of architectural elements (base stations, switches, routers, etc), and the interfaces and protocols between those elements.

              When, for instance, you switch off 2G and reuse the corresponding frequency band for 4G, there is no way a 2G-only device will be able to operate any longer: the signalling and transfer protocols no longer work because the indispensable network elements are no longer there to connect to.
              2/3/4G mean a complex of signalling protocols serving to connect devices to a network and to establish calls or data transfers, transfer protocols to carry voice or data (including coding and compression algorithms), wireless frequency bands over which those signalling and transfers take place, as well as a series of architectural elements (base stations, switches, routers, etc), and the interfaces and protocols between those elements.

              When, for instance, you switch off 2G and reuse the corresponding frequency band for 4G, there is no way a 2G-only device will be able to operate any longer: the signalling and transfer protocols no longer work because the indispensable network elements are no longer there to connect to, and the 4G network elements use different protocols and signals.

              2G and 3G directly support voice and data calls.

              The only ambiguous case is the current LTE (4G), which does not necessarily support voice calls directly — and may require specialized side-channels for that in networks not relying upon Voice over LTE (aka VoLTE).

            2. Yves Smith Post author

              Absolutely not true. My phone is 2G and I have no signal in my apartment, about half of Manhattan, and have difficulty getting signal in places like San Francisco and Boston. Didn’t used to be that way 2 years ago. This is the result of the 2G phaseout.

              1. Fazal Majid

                It’s called refarming. The newer protocols are much more efficient at using radio spectrum and carriers can free up capacity by migrating frequency bands from 2G to 4G. The number of people unable to use anything but 2G is too small to matter.

          3. Knifecatcher

            The telematics in the Nissan Leaf used the AT&T 2G network and yes, I can confirm that it stopped working as of the end of 2016. I can no longer track my battery charge with an app, automatically update the latest charging stations on the nav system, and turn the climate control on / off remotely. Against all odds I’ve so far managed to survive this catastrophe.

            Nissan has offered to replace the built in 2G modem with an updated version at no charge. For some reason I keep neglecting to do so.

      2. sgt_doom

        Just buy some high-end decent coffee — those shiny inside bags they ship them in to the stores serve the purpose, plus you’ve purchased decent coffee.

  2. vlade

    it’s interesting, how people are getting up to arms about this – when a lot of the new TVs have mics and cameras (so you can for example run Skype on them), majority of people who get them hook them up to the internet straight away (Netfilx and stuff), I know a lot of people who have a TV in pretty much every room (given how cheap they are), hardly anyone unplugs them from electricity when not watching, and crucial – their security is pretty much non-existent (similar to other IoT devices. Zilch).

    If you have a connected “smart” TV, they worrying about a phone or Echo or something like that is second order TBH – at least you’re realising they can snoop on you.

  3. David Jacobs

    Minimizing the breadcrumbs we leave everywhere requires more effort than most people realize.

    Richard Stallman lives by the following
    * no cell
    * cash for all purchases except airline, car and hotel
    * offline email (e.g., pop3 style)
    * web browsing via email (e.g,. web2mail) or tor
    * never get loyalty card or give names/ phone numbers/ zip code to stores
    * 100% open source computer/firmware/operating system/software

    With face, voice, license plate and other automatic recognition systems, avoiding location tracking is a losing battle.

    For people who want a little more convenience
    * basic prepaid cell (outgoing only)
    * faraday bag for any fobs and other pieces of emitting technology

    1. a different chris

      My half-serious theory is we should maximize said breadcrumbs – rather than hide it, swamp the idiots with data. I hadn’t thought of Hepativore’s idea, that’s even better.

      1. Anon

        I agree that we should “swamp the idiots with data”, but it’s better to swamp them with *erroneous* data. (With the falling price of memory chips “swamping” becomes more difficult.)

      2. Andrew Dodds

        Well, yes.

        If you take ‘off-grid’ measures – such as having an old phone that only occasionally pops up on the grid, encrypting all your email, putting tape over the selfie camera, sort of thing – you will attract the notice of any half decent classification algorithm. Just as Winston did in the book 1984, you have to make your ‘visible’ life look completely normal.

        Or live in a totally off grid shack in the woods, obvs.

        Just to increase your paranoia level.

    2. TheMog

      The issue with the “100% OS Computer/Firmware/OS/software” is that anything worth having for productive work in the last 5+ years will run the Intel Management Engine (or IIRC the AMD equivalent) and as has been demonstrated recently, that one is completely independent from the rest of the machine and not even accessible to the user. So even if you replace the BIOS/UEFI Firmware with an FOSS equivalent, there’s still a part of the computer with its own CPU you don’t have control over and can’t even check what it does.

      There are a couple of vendors (System 76 comes to mind) who now ship laptops with ME disabled, but those need seeking out.

      Not quite sure how web browsing over email would do much more than inconvenience yourself (after all, the results have to get to an email account somehow, and sufficiently good sleuths will be able to tie it to you) and as Snowden demonstrated, at least the NSA and most likely a whole bunch of other spy agencies are running TOR exit nodes, plus IIRC at least in some cases said agencies have been able to trace back traffic to their origin, but I can’t find the citations right now.

      Not that there isn’t some good advice in there, but as you rightly point out, a lot of is becoming ineffective due to other advances in tracking technology

        1. TheMog

          Purism is the other company whose name I couldn’t remember when I wrote the comment above. Plus it appears that at least if you buy them in bulk, you can get certain ruggedized Dell laptops with the ME disabled also. Naturally, that’s an extra cost option.

  4. Hepativore

    Here is an idea. It might be more trouble than it is worth, but I wonder if you could have some fun with Amazon with Echo or Google Home and similar devices by using them soley as “data pollution” enablers. If you are an activist or somebody who wants to make difficulties with these companies snooping on you, buy an an Amazon Echo and put it in a room away from you with the door shut. Then put something next to it that plays pre-recorded random messages for awhile, and then see what Amazon or Google tries to do with personalized ads. You could possibly cause even more chaos at their expense by placing these devices next to a radio set on “scan” so that it randomly shuffles through stations. If you get a large group of people to do this at once, I can imagine it will cause Amazon and Google at lot of migraines in terms of trying to create an accurate profile of the owners of these devices. I could see some serious potential for trolling the data overlords!

    1. Marco

      You bring up an important point and that is intentionally polluting the data collection stream. If you can mobilize large communities to tweet / text / email / speak random info (or more provocatively…fake terrorist threats in Arabic) what happens at NSA headquarters?

      1. WobblyTelomeres

        What happens? They ask for and get mo’ money, mo’ money to deal with the increased threats to national security.

      2. ambrit

        If it’s the NSA you’re talking (randomly) to and about, it might end up like my favourite post 9-11 cartoon. It shows two men in the cockpit if an airplane heading into the side of one of the old Twin Towers. One is saying to the other, “And let Allah sort them out.”
        The present penchant for massive data ‘hoovering up’ gives rise to a concomitant ‘nuke them all’ mind set.
        Indeed, I’ll go so far as to say that the present Alphabet Agencies have adopted an old fashioned Ultra-Anarchist ethos: “There are no innocents.” (Real Anarcho-Syndicalists will complain, I know, but I’m talking about the ‘Bomb Throwers’ of yore.)

      3. Hana M

        That is a very dangerous idea–to you, not the data stream. Think SWAT teams showing up at your house in the middle of the night. Not that I’m foily or anything….

    2. Paul Harvey 0swald

      I brought this idea up to a friend who is also a programmer. Why not have my smart phone call random numbers periodically throughout the day? Same for my browser, only websites? And, while I’m at it, why not texts to random people? Perhaps we could make a “network” of users, say you sign up and then are allowed to “call and hang up” or text gibberish, and also get the same in return. Sounds like a good idea on the surface, he responded, but the watchers at Goggle or Amazing will easily be able to filter out random noise, in fact they surely already do.

  5. QuarterBack

    How fitting that Echo from Greek mythology was a nymph that fell in love with Narcissus and whose parroting led his death. For a narcissist, an Amazon Echo is a gift from the Gods, and one that will satisfy their narcissistic ramblings until fate arrives.

  6. Louis Fyne

    for Faraday bag recommendations, I imagine that the Prepper community forums are where to go (EMP).

    Wonder how big the overlap is between NC readers and Prepping.

    1. ambrit

      Mr. Fyne;
      You’d be surprised. Faraday pouches can be had at Academy Sports, that I know of with certainty. There, I have seen them on an aisle adjacent to camping supplies. I guess that’s for those who want to really get ‘out of touch’ with the world for awhile. Turning a “safe room” in ones’ house into a Faraday room comes to mind.

  7. Dave

    On faraday bags….

    I bought and tried anitstatic bags represented as having protection. I put the cell phone in and called it. No protection.

    1. ambrit

      I’ve read of women who put a Faraday pouch in a compartment of their purse, and RFID devices, etc. in that. Shoplifters have tried this before to defeat electronic anti-theft devices. How well that worked out, I don’t know. I don’t shoplift on the principle that, if I wanted to commit to a life of crime, I may as well steal something really valuable, so as to make the risk commensurate with the reward. So, for me, no sticky fingers.

        1. Self Affine

          I believe that you should turn off your phone as well. If you leave it on the software usually turns up the gain looking for a signal, which drains the battery.

          At least that’s my observation.

          1. Jimbo

            Yes. I used to do a lot of work in hospitals. For some reason, the concrete construction of the typical hospital plays hell with cell signals. I always had to remember to turn off my phone at the beginning of the day, or it would be dead by noon.

            1. Mike Mc

              My many years as a computer service/repair guy included lots of home WiFi router installations. Most fun was a ritzy house in our Country Club neighborhood built in the late 1920s. A major step forward in fire protection was wire mesh lath replacing the old wood lath under the plastered walls.

              Entire house was a Faraday cage – family couldn’t get cordless phones to work either! The doctor who owned it eventually had to get an electrician run Ethernet cables to each room.

              Other WiFi tips from back in the day – masonry/stone construction absorbs WiFi signals, metal (structural steel/plumbing stack/HVAC ducting) scatter it. Installed many a repeater in One Percenter mansions to share the signal.

              Hope a fellow IT and NC reader can speak to WiFi blockers – some schools and churches use them. After a weekend church retreat with middle schoolers… let’s just say I’m suddenly much more interested in blocking WiFi than enabling it!

        2. Whiskey Bob

          When the phone can’t get a good signal, it will crank up the power of the radios to try getting one. If the phone can’t get any signal and is stuck in that state, it will work at 100% power consumption for nothing.

  8. John Ware

    Almost 30 years ago, I was part of a management team putting out a voice activated “smart home assistant” called “Butler in a Box.” You would feed it voice commands such as, “Turn on the TV” or “Turn off the Kitchen Light” or “Program the lawn sprinklers for 04:30” and it would iteratively learn your voice (fluctuations, timbre, tone, etc.). As such, it could learn four different voices in your household. It even had auxilliary devices for guard dogs, sentries, and all kinds of state of the art security at the time.

    About the same time, the internet was ramping up. Not available in most areas, it was available for specialized use in Southern California (where I lived at the time) and especially linked up Defense units (contractors, bases, etc.) and Universities.

    We took BIAB to UCLA to try it out on the internet, to see if we could program voice activated commands (in Fortran C!) and, therefore, increase its adaptability outside the home. Very long story short – the commands we programmed in 1990 were archived in a file we requested from the FCC SEVEN YEARS LATER! Our names were ascribed to the commands and the day’s work we did at UCLA seven years prior stared us in the face word for word. (The project we were working on in 1997 had nothing to do with BIAB.)


  9. Googoogajoob

    When I saw my brother get an Echo for Christmas last year from his wife, I instantly remembered the article at the time. I didn’t raise a fuss then but guess where this year’s gathering destination is…

    1. perpetualWAR

      My sister’s house has one too. Very important they believe they are telling a machine to turn on the music! I said, “Aren’t you worried about your privacy?” Their reply “We don’t have anything to hide.” My response, as always, “To those who claim they don’t care about their right to privacy because they have nothing to hide is like not caring about freedom of speech because they have nothing to say.” (Edward Snowden)

  10. The Rev Kev

    I have read that business executives have to give up their mobiles when going into any important meeting as there are far too many ways to hack them and turn them into spying devices on behalf of another firm. The thought occurred to me in reading this. What if some beancounter or marketing droid thought it a good idea to take an Echo into the office to get work done with it and to also show off. Another company could tap into it and learn a ton of stuff on this company and how they operate. Can you imagine?

    1. Arizona Slim

      That was one of the big problems with Hillary Clinton while she was Secretary of State. Despite the fact that she was told not to do so, she insisted on using insecure mobile devices in places where she shouldn’t have.

      1. John

        Hillary used a Blackberry which at the time was more secure than most. The least secure thing now is Android.

  11. Aaron W.

    I have a problem with these articles by both NC and Gizmodo. I don’t deny that there are substantial unknowns and risks associated with these new voice-enabled devices. I certainly believe that anyone who invites one into their home should do so only after intentionally making an informed choice. However, in both these articles, the devices are cast as providing such trivial benefits as to present no reasonable choice at all. To read these pieces in a vacuum would have us believe that we are risking our entire financial and personal lives merely for a voice-controlled light bulb.
    It’s disingenuous to infer that these devices bring only simple services to lazy people who can’t be bothered to look at their phone/computer or walk across the room to flip a light switch. In reality, there are a great many uses for these gadgets and they add more functionality all the time. I’m not saying that the tradeoff is worth it for any one person, but by misrepresenting the richness of utility available, these articles suggest a choice that is nearly as uninformed as one ignorant of the privacy implications.
    For me, personally, the tradeoff is worth it for certain locations in my life. For cooking and my jewelry studio work (hands busy and often dirty), having a voice-controlled assistant that can set unlimited, named timers, control my media playback, and perform unit conversions and math is very compelling. That may not be enough for you, but that’s a lot more than flipping on a light.
    I don’t like the surveillance, whether actual or potential. I don’t think we should have to live with that for a product or service of any kind. I would much prefer that the voice processing be done locally (currently impractical) or that I could enforce better controls on the device’s network traffic. I am prepared to pull the plug should I become uncomfortable with these devices in the future, but for now I, along with many others, do find the utility to be worth some risk.
    I’m certainly not suggesting that articles of this sort should take a neutral stance, but the choice to have one of these devices is a choice between utility and risk. When one side of that equation is completely disregarded, the entire argument becomes weak. One who wants to dissuade the use of these devices might be better served presenting the reality of the significant capabilities. One could then argue that even the rich capabilities of these devices do not make the trade-off worth it.
    Right now, that’s not my stance. I hope I’m able to keep it, but I’ll be watching closely. :)

    1. Anon

      I am prepared to pull the plug should I become uncomfortable with these devices in the future, but for now I, along with many others, do find the utility to be worth some risk.

      Yeah, but it’s like Facebook. The history remains after you pull the plug. And you become uncompensated collaborator as Amazon refines their product.

    2. EoH

      MSM Bothsiderism. The notional convenience of such devices is vastly outweighed by their ability to extract and then to extrapolate intimate details of one’s life and many others touched by it. It is paid for by those whose information is being used – largely without their knowledge – to generate billions.

      Added to which should be the substantial additional information harvested from the web with which information from these devices is aggregated. It’s not just about one’s face or voice print, the dimensions of one’s home, how often you speak to it or what it hears and the physical world it interpolates when you’re not.

      Next, I’ll be reading that it’s a no-brainer to live in a Toronto neighborhood, wired to the hilt by a friendly billionaire, where every face, footstep and heartbeat is collected by ET and phoned home.

  12. a different chris

    My joke about blizzarding them with data above aside, these people really are disturbing. Their absolute belief that they should have access to your smartphone when a crime is committed, a device that didn’t exist when most of the adult population was born, is an amazing window into their mindset.

    Thoughtcrime, anybody?

  13. freedeomny

    I have an Echo – I primarily use it for music. I’m not too concerned about it spying on me in that I live alone and am not in the habit of talking to myself and am not a telephone talker. When I do have visitors over, I often unplug it. The point – I believe people should regards the impact of these devices within the lens of their own lifestyles. That being said – I recently bought a kindle fire. My last one broke – I had bought it 3 years ago to use during a hospital stay. The new Kindle Fires now have an Alexa stored in them whether you want it or not – so voice recognition is now automatically being installed many Amazon devices…..however, I believe it can only be used if the Kindle is on. Still, I found it disturbing….

  14. XXYY

    Faraday bags are quite unreliable and should not be relied upon, especially outside a lab setting. Even in a lab they need to be carefully checked at intervals for leaks and defects. In a rough and tumble environment, such as a purse or backpack, they are likely to become damaged in short order. One small tear or opening in the conductive material renders the bag useless.

    Worse, there is no easy way to know if the bag is radiating or not without complex equipment. You obviously can’t tell by eye or ear. IMO “consumer” Faraday bags are mostly a scam.

    The most reliable way to ensure your phone is not radiating is to take the battery out. Obviously you need a phone with a removable battery for this approach to work.

    1. EoH

      As you say, that assumes one’s phone has a user-removable battery. Many do not.

      Farraday bags sized for phones and computers are reasonably available online. Except for the one’s intended for professional use, such as by local law enforcement, they are reasonably priced.

      They are like, but stronger, than Farraday wallets meant to protect against unauthorized reading of chip-based cards. Like those wallets, they provide protection, but probably not thorough enough for Edward Snowden to use on a visit to the US.

      Commenters are right that you should turn off the phone; otherwise, it will keep looking for a signal and shorten already short battery charge. Frequently entering and leaving service is a pattern that reportedly moves one’s phone – and its machine number and card number – up the ladder of surveillance. An alternative to a full shut off might be “airplane” mode.

    2. Yves Smith Post author

      Ahem, it would seem that periodically testing if you can call the phone when it is in the bag would suffice. This isn’t hard to test, so I don’t see the basis for alarm.

    3. EoH

      My understanding is that F bags shield different frequencies, the more complete the “shut out” (depending on materials, design and use) usually the higher price the bag. Testing whether a call is received might be inadequate for very sensitive uses, but not for normal ones.

      There are “very tight” and durable (and expensive) F bags used, for example, by law enforcement to shut out signals to and from suspect devices. Not applicable for home use.

  15. Martin Finnucane

    I guess I’m sufficiently passee to find it surprising that there would even need to be an argument here. Of course you don’t want an Echo, Google Home, Apple Whatever, etc.! I don’t really need to be talked into not wanting to pay someone to break into my house or spy on my children either.

    What is the market for this junk – people who really hate light switches? Have we all gone mad?

    1. freedeomny

      Actually – there is a market for this type of device that many seem to overlook. For some, turning on a light switch is actually a big deal in terms of time, pain, mobility, etc. A close friend of mine is sufficiently disabled that being able to ask Alexa to turn on lights and tv, initiate timers, perform calculations, etc allows her a significant degree of independence.

      1. Sluggeaux

        Siri is very useful when driving a car, cutting down on the distractions that take your eyes off the road when using the phone, messaging, navigation, and music/podcasts. Distracted driving has caused a major uptick in auto accidents. Distracted drivers regularly tailgate, fail to slow for traffic, make unintended lane changes, miss curves, and are a menace to the lives and schedules of other drivers. New cars with Apple CarPlay and Siri make me a safer driver.

        However, unless I suffered from a mobility challenge I wouldn’t invite Siri into my house. I’m not worried about the NSA so much as I am offended by strangers monetizing my daily life without my active participation and consent. It’s another manifestation of the culture of rape as far as I’m concerned.

    2. Louis Fyne

      My brother has an Echo. I absolutely agree w/the privacy concerns—-but seeing how the Echo can work well in a house w/small kids, I’ll save my privacy diatribe to my brother for a later time.

      your mileage may vary.

  16. flora

    Thanks for this post. There’s a lot of TV and web advertising for these products right now; none of the ads mention any downside to owning one.

    1. EoH

      One would expect not to hear about a product’s downside in an advert. Reminds me of the late Christine Keeler’s friend’s comment on the witness stand, on hearing that Lord Astor denied sleeping with her, unbeknownst to his wife, “He would say that, wouldn’t he.”

          1. wilroncanada

            Canadian politicians were involved in a similar case at about the same time, if I remember correctly. The lady’s name was Gerda Munsinger.
            The Canadian comic actor Don Harron ( Charlie Farquarson on Hee-Haw) called it the Munsigwear case, with members throwing their briefs around in parliament.

  17. Dita

    I got a kindle fire a few days ago and it had an option to enable Alexa – in fact that was what this kindle was designed around. I hesitated – would it really be so bad to be able to tell it what music to play, etc. So I read the terms of service and it’s right in there – once enabled, Alexa is necessarily always listening passively. Saying “Alexa” just wakes it up. Oh, and in order for Alexa to pick our your voice in a crowd or distinguish you from television, you and whoever else would use it would have to read a sentence or words repeatedly so Alexa could assemble voice profiles.

    Yeah. NO.

  18. The Rev Kev

    Anybody here seen the clip at with two Echoes together? Not so smart, eh? There is even ones featuring a Google Home and an Amazon Echo having a good yarn ( but be warned – if you have such a device in your own home, turn them off first before playing.
    Even “South Park” pranked viewer with these devices with one of their episodes ( And anybody remember when a TV preseter deliberately triggered Alexa devices during a story (
    The point is that these things are not like the Star Trek LCARS computer which people talked to but are just one step above dumb terminals in some respects. The real fun and games start when they are bonded with AI.

  19. Vernon Hamilton

    I sort of wish I had anything to hide, but, in fact my out-loud conversations tend to be about my arthritis and complications of my enlarged prostate – dig that security state! – and let me tell you about my toenails! –
    so Im sort of in the “swamp them” camp as far as being overheard, or anyway I like to think I’m adding hay to the haystacks where others with more meaningful lives are hiding needles.

    still, Im again’ it!
    let me recommend for any readers who relish this subject the books of John XII Hawks.
    just google him, or rather, DuckduckGo him you fools! and you will understand. and ffs go to a book store, walking if possible, and pay cash!

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