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Alexa, Are You Listening?

So you’ve got your Amazon Echo, that little smart speaker, sitting on your bedside table. We’ll refer to her as Alexa and in female form, just for clarity’s sake. You tell her to play 80s love songs while you’re getting ready for bed. Then you remember you’ve got to get some groceries, so you tell Alexa to add almond milk and Honey Bunches of Oats to the list. Without skipping a beat, you order Alexa to set the alarm for 6:00 a.m., and to set the other smart home devices to go on, too, like the coffee pot and heater.

Could life get any simpler? Chores listed, tasks set, and your mind is at ease, so now you can fall asleep, right? But wait. Now your mind goes to a new place and as you drift off you wonder: If Alexa understands my voice commands, could she be listening in on conversations even when I’m not speaking to her?

In this age of artificial intelligence (good ‘ole A.I.), the question of “Who’s listening?” becomes of utmost importance. What we must come to terms with is: Are we ready to trade privacy for convenience?

Have a short listen to Joe Dalu and Tiffani Thiessen’s convo on home security and what she thinks about family protection:

Who’s Listening to Whom?

Every day, we’re racing towards becoming a society where computerized gadgets, designed to make our lives easier, might be doing more than just that. It’s not that these high-tech devices are harmful in themselves, but with the advancement of A.I., is there a wizard (or the government or Facebook or Google or Amazon) behind the curtain tuning in?

We know we are watched as we go about our day by cameras placed at businesses, on Ring doorbells, and at private residences. Our computer and iPhone searches are monitored by advertisers and our Facebook likes are sold to third-party entities. So, it’s not a wonder we’re constantly bombarded with ads offering just what we were looking for a minute ago. You wonder how they knew that’s what you were thinking. Well, the truth is, algorithms of swipes by millions of people are analyzed, and our minds are, in essence, being read.

The A.I. Race Is On

In a January 2019 article by hothardware.com entitled, Google Assistant Installed Base Is Reportedly 10x Larger Than Amazon Alexa, it indicated the bigwigs at Google weren’t impressed with Alexa’s numbers.

Here’s a quip: “We’ll see your 100 million assistant devices and raise you 1 billion.” Apparently, Google announced it expected to sell 1 billion Google Assistant devices by the end of the month, which was in direct response to Amazon’s announcement they sold 100 million Alexa devices.

It doesn’t appear the personal-robot-assistant market has been satisfied, yet. We’re really at the nascent stage of technology, but it feels like the future is already here. Devices we use daily already converse with us on a first-name basis (think Siri). We no longer have to get up off the couch to set the oven to preheat or turn down the A/C or turn off the porch light. Our life is full of ease, but, again, let’s ask ourselves: Is our lack of privacy worth the convenience?

Is My Home Security System Really Safe?

It’s widely known that texts, emails and phone conversation are not only monitored by our own government, but also by foreign nations. We know that anything set up through WiFi is vulnerable to hackers. Your fridge, microwave or lightbulbs could open you up to bad actions by nefarious characters.

Security systems set up via WiFi, meant to help us feel safe, can also be hacked, just like computers. A burglar can hack into your home’s security system, deactivate the alarm, enter your house and get away without leaving a trace. Hard-wired systems, though, do not pose that same risk.

Yes, Alexa is Listening

We know designers and engineers of smart home devices are listening, as stated in an April 2019, Forbes.com article:

“This week, it was revealed that some of those things we say aren’t just listened to by computers but by real people. A report from Bloomberg earlier this week claimed that Amazon employs people around the world to listen to voice recordings from Echo (aka Alexa) users’ homes. The recordings are then transcribed, have annotations added and used to improve Alexa’s performance.

It sounds unnerving, doesn’t it? And that’s before more details are revealed, like there being, it’s said, thousands of staff around the world doing this, or that the recordings have been the source of anxiety or amusement among the Amazon listeners.”

Are Cybercriminals Paying Attention?

With all this new technology, there is always a criminal element waiting to take advantage of our reliance on it. Are the airwaves safe? From the research, hacking a device like Alexa is not impossible, but, at this point in time, impractical for financial reasons.

Cybercriminals are interested in stealing your personal and banking information, and rarely do people give that information to a smart speaker. On the other hand, it might be worth their while if they were trying to get insider information on a business transaction, personal indiscretion for blackmailing purposes, or for monetary reasons, such as The National Enquirer getting ahold of Beyoncé’s and Jay Z’s private convos.

For most of us, these smart assistants don’t really pose a threat and are nothing more than a way to get instant information, play your favorite music hands-free, or to entertain the kids in a way that doesn’t involve a computer screen. Seems kids talk to Alexa like she’s a member of the family. Some lonely hearts even use Alexa as a free pseudo-therapist. Crazy? Maybe not. Crazier things happened when listening in became evidence in a murder case. Just read what iflscience.com reported:

“Timothy Verill is accused of first-degree murder in the stabbing deaths of Christine Sullivan, 48, and 32-year-old Jenna Pellegrini. Verill pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial

Last week, a judge ordered e-commerce giant Amazon to release any recordings taken by an Amazon Echo speaker seized by police from the murder scene. It’s unclear if the smart speaker contains any audio evidence, however, the court found probable cause recordings maintained on an Amazon server could contain ‘Evidence of crimes committed against Ms. Sullivan, including the attack and possible removal of the body from the kitchen.'”

Whatever the case, Alexa and her sisters are here to stay, and how you chose to interact with her is a personal choice. But please remember, what you say in Vegas may not stay in Vegas. In other words, the walls really do have ears.

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