Alexa, Amazon, Siri, technology, privacy, Deep State,

My Friend Alexa

By Grace Lidia Suárez

Alexa and I are friends. There is a manifestation of her (in the form of an Echo device) in most rooms of my home. I talk to her all day.

In the morning, I try to do as much as I can before getting out of bed or even opening my eyes. Here is a typical exchange:

Morning Alexa Routine

(Say “Alexa” before each sentence)

1 What time is it?

2 What’s the weather like?

3 What’s on my calendar?

4 Put Call Person 1 about Task 1 on my To Do list

5 Put all items I can think of on To Do list

6 Play the Peter Paul and Mary song with “hammer of justice” in the lyrics

Once I complete my “mind dump” I’m ready to get up.

The rest of the day I refer to my list (“Alexa, what’s on my To Do list?”). I check the items off on the Alexa App on my iPad or the Todoist app, which is linked to Alexa.

As you can see, I love Alexa. Am I worried about the privacy implications? No, because I’m a post-privacy person. I assume the Deep State is listening to every word, and I just wish I could ask It questions (“Deep State, where did I put my keys?”).

What are the privacy implications?

Is Alexa listening to everything you say? Of course. How else would she know when she’s being summoned?

As Wired puts it,

But you know what? That little talking cylinder is always listening to you. And not just listening, but recording and saving many of the things you say. Should you freak out? Not if you’re comfortable with Google and Amazon logging your normal web activity, which they’ve done for years. Hell, many other sites have also done it for years. Echo and Home simply continue the trend of saving a crumb trail of queries, except with snippets of your voice.

What does she do with all the stuff she hears?

Whenever you make a voice request, Google Home and Alexa-enabled devices record or stream audio clips of what you say. Those files are sent to a server—the real brains of the operation—to process the audio and formulate a response. The recorded clips are associated to your user account, and that process is enabled by default.

According to the Magister Ludi (Jeff Bezos to you), Amazon does not save or store any words other than those that follow the wake word (“Alexa”).

Is Apple’s Siri different?

According to Wired, yes.

Siri records your queries too, but she doesn’t catalog them or provide access to the running list of requests. You can’t listen to your history of Siri interactions in Apple’s app universe.

While Apple logs and stores Siri queries, they’re tied to a random string of numbers for each user instead of an Apple ID or email address. Apple deletes the association between those queries and those numerical codes after six months. Your Amazon and Google histories, on the other hand, stay there until you decide to delete them.

So theoretically at least, Siri is more private. But at the moment, much less convenient and not as intelligent.

Yeah sure, but what are they really up to?

Okay, here’s an article from Bloomberg to get your paranoia cooking. If you’re not a subscriber, here’s a snippet from Wired.

But what about the bigger pool of data, the aggregated voice queries from each system’s user base? According to this Bloomberg story, Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft are using all that variety to hone these systems’ understanding of spoken language even further. Several times a day, Amazon uses the entire stack of Alexa queries to educate its A.I. about dialects and casual speech. Microsoft has mysterious fake apartments(!) set up to record and understand natural speech patterns. Google slices and dices the audio it’s already captured, then remixes it to help train its system. All these methods are meant to make your voice assistant smarter in the coming years.

Will Amazon give your stuff to the Deep State? Maybe. Check out this story from New York Magazine.

It’s your decision

Remember Professor Melvin Kranzberg’s First Law: “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.”

He explains it further by saying,

“technology’s interaction with the social ecology is such that technical developments frequently have environmental, social, and human consequences that go far beyond the immediate purposes of the technical devices and practices themselves, and the same technology can have quite different results when introduced into different contexts or under different circumstances.”

A deeper dive

For more on Kranzberg’s laws, check out this article.

My article is not a tutorial on using voice-activated devices. To dive deeper, check out the aforementioned Wired article or, as MAGAs on Twitter constantly tell you, Google it. And remember, you can always push the mute button if you really don’t want Alexa to listen to you.

Of course, then you have to remember to push it back on.

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