Alexa, Stop Listening to Me!

On November 6, 2014, Amazon launched the Amazon Echo– a voice controlled smart speaker serviced by the popularized digital assistant, “Alexa”. It is a controlling center for smart home appliances, and a revolutionary device that evolved how modern technology was integrated into an individual’s home.

The voice activation feature is convenient and efficient. However, convenience is not worth sacrificing the privacy of our homes to these invasive devices. Today, like the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, we are being tracked and recorded without our permission in every aspect of our daily lives that technology has integrated into. It has been particularly concerning that even our homes have become grounds for collecting data on individuals.

“The way to think about it is as 2.5 billion Truman Shows.”

Roger McNamee, Early investor venture capitalist in Facebook, “Social Dilemma

There is no guarantee of user privacy in technology. Although leaders at Amazon claim to protect user privacy and only listen to the user when the key word is activated, there have been cases where an Amazon Echo malfunctions and uncover all the questionable data it has been storing about the user. In the Guardian, Dorian Lynsky (2019) writes: “Last year, an Amazon customer in Germany was mistakenly sent about 1,700 audio files from someone else’s Echo, providing enough information to name and locate the unfortunate user and his girlfriend.” This highlights a prevalent privacy issue with these devices (read it here).  

What we should be concerned about is what this information is being used for. High Tech companies have benefited the public by providing us access to information and entertainment. We pay for this by offering our information in the form of cookies. These are text files with small pieces of data that are used to identify your computer network and even specific users.

According to an article written by Jeffrey Rosen (2012), Modern technology companies will program the best way to get your attention by collecting information about you anytime and all the time; When you browse the internet on your phone, or as you have an intimate conversation while Alexa listens on the bedside table. They will declare you a high potential buyer, and then sell your attention to the largest bidding advertiser (read it here). 

A screenshot from the Netflix documentary “Social Dilemma”

Even if users have the option to disable this collection of data, most people are unaware that their information is being used to make profit from these third party advertisers. Furthermore, there have been accusations of organizations using data for malicious intent.

Raphael Satter (2021) writes, “Russian spies accused of interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election have spent much of the past two years abusing virtual private networks (VPNs) to target hundreds of organizations worldwide.” Unsolicited data has also been provided to law enforcement for protection purposes. Lynsky also states that “Last year, a judge in New Hampshire made headlines by ordering Amazon to submit Echo recordings of a double murder to investigators.” (read it here)

  It is enough to know that these companies collect information by using invasive technology, but technology has made it increasingly difficult to escape surveillance and manipulation as it has become ubiquitous to our lifestyles, especially since devices like the Amazon Echo have infiltrated our homes.

In China, facial recognition is sharp end of a drive for total surveillance  - Chicago Tribune
A CCTV display using the facial-recognition system Face in Beijing. (Gilles Sabrié / The Washington Post)

Collecting unsolicited data for advertising can lead to a flood of other problems. For example, when buying something from Amazon they will show listings that you are likely to buy based on your preferences. They give you what they think you want but not what you might actually need.

Additionally, advertisements that are tailored for us can perpetuate our habits and interests, making it less likely for us to be exposed to other ideologies and opinions.  This can lead to further classification and exclusion occurring in the society.

Marxist theorists argue that the intent behind these devices are a part of a system that strengthens capitalist structures in the society, keeping the public in a controlled sphere of knowledge and ideas while also promoting consumer behaviour. Consequently, this reinforces social structures and it destabilized any understanding between social classes. This promotes exclusivity and elitism to the upper class and misinterpretations and insensitivity for the working class. 

The ability for a foreign nation to buy ads to make sure you click on them, and what you like influences what you see and how you perceive and then make you at and do something that you wouldn’t have done, that is the act of the collection of your data by use of artificial intelligence.

Amazon Echo, Google Home and other voice activated home assistants are invasive technology that consumers have been influenced by society to invite into their homes. These devices are primarily designed to collect personal information from users in order to sell it to advertising agencies for profit.

Realizing that shady monetary benefits are what drives these new technological innovations and not necessarily the customer’s convenience, consumers should be cautious while buying these products, and decide for themselves if they are willing to trust these multi-millionaire technology companies to control our information, our society, and our lives.

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