Amazon recently had its massive annual Prime sale–the Black Friday of summer or as some have dubbed it, Christmas in July. Among all the books, movies, clothing, gadgets, and electronics you can purchase on their site, perhaps Amazon’s greatest pride and joy is their own invention: the Amazon Echo.
The Echo is a monolithic device reminiscent of Kubrick’s 2001 Space Odyssey–a black pillar to erect in the center of one’s home that is always listening. If you want to play music, check the weather, calculate a measurement conversion for a recipe, all you need to do is ask Alexa, the genie in this bottle.
Google, not to be outdone in the quest to control all the technology in our lives, has a similar device on the market: the Google Home.
Both devices offer increasing convenience for the modern chaotic life. As someone who bakes quite a bit, I love the idea of being able to verbally inquire after the next ingredient for my recipe when my hands are covered in flour. For parents with small children in need of extra arms, no doubt these kind of devices also come in handy. And, in truth, how different are these devices from the Siri and Google that already live in our smartphones? We have already transitioned into a world where we talk to our devices and expect a proportionate response in word or deed.
But is this really a world we want to live in? Is convenience the framework we wish to structure the future around? It’s sorely tempting, but I would answer no–and urge you to do the same.
In a world of listening devices, everything we say in the comfort and privacy of our homes is picked up by these devices, with the potential of being recorded. There is already evidence to show that what we say to our companions and family members–not directly to the device–is being used to customize the advertising we see as we surf the web. (Listen to this Note to Self episode to learn more.)
While most of what we say at home might be quite innocuous, suppose one of these devices picks up a casual conversation in which you speak bitterly about an acquaintance who is then subsequently found murdered. What if that conversation becomes admissible in a court of law? As we know from experience with texting, digital devices have a hard time providing an emotional context and nuance when converting a verbal statement into a written one–even with the use of emojis and gifs. And this scenario is not simply hypothetical–Amazon has already been subpoenaed to release Echo data in this murder case. (Amazon refused but the defendant himself later agreed to release the data to the police.) And then, of course, there is the case of the San Bernardino shooters in which the authorities tried to get Apple to provide access to the shooters’ phones.
Even as these corporations are currently fighting to maintain our privacy, I find it scary to think that our data is in the hands of massive companies that are shaping the world’s future. They may not be the governmental authorities but Amazon, Google, and Apple are powerful authorities over our lives in other ways. They already have so much access to our privates lives through our email inboxes, our devices, and our shopping baskets–why would we want to invite them more directly into our homes?
For those who reluctantly respond with, “well we’re in this far, we might as well just accept the state of the world, give up and enjoy the convenience of such devices,” I disagree. We are not so far that we can’t take a stand and begin to shift the needle back to a place in which we as individuals can begin to own our personal information and data again. Choosing not to own an Echo or a Home is a place to start making that shift. Baby steps. Baby steps.
I’m not the first person to discuss this issue, so here’s a few links to some great podcasts and articles that also discuss this topic. If you own or don’t own one of these devices, I’d love to hear why you chose to buy or not buy one, and if you have one, what do you think now that you have it in your home? Do you disagree with my argument? If so, why?
- “What Your Phone Knows” from the Note to Self podcast
- This is also Day 1 of their week-long interactive series called The Privacy Paradox, which I highly recommend.
- “Amazon’s ‘Echo Look’ Could Snoop A Lot More Than Just Your Clothes” from Wired Magazine
- “Goodbye Privacy, Hello ‘Alexa’: Amazon Echo, the Home Robot Who Hears It All” from The Guardian
- “The Secret Life of Alex Goldman” from the Reply All podcast
- This podcast is quirky and casual, so expect a very different approach to this topic than the above links.
The featured image is courtesy of Matthew Henry