Even if you haven’t read the seminal novel 1984 in many decades, you will surely recall the omnipresent “Big Brother” and the even more haunting reminder/warning that “Big Brother is watching you.” Rather than actually representing a single person (or even celestial being) readers quickly come to realize Big Brother is the result of countless numbers of citizens informing on their family, friends and neighbors in service of the Party “groupthink“. Fast forward to the present, where, believe it or not, Big Brother is watching and listening, but maybe not quite in the way Orwell had originally imagined.
Most of you have come to accept that devices like Amazon’s smart speakers, Echo and it’s petite sibling, Dot, are always listening, ostensibly to be able to snap to action the second you shout, “Alexa!” But what you might not realize (or remember) is that Amazon is recording and keeping a copy of everything the device hears after you speak the trigger word. Depending on how cynical I’ve made you about technology over the years, this may or may not come as a surprise to you, and if you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, I even wrote about this nearly three years ago. Despite very clearly dancing on knife-edge of child-protection laws in 2016, regulation has not halted or even slowed the proliferation of millions of eavesdropping, smart-devices.
If you are curious about what your own Alexa-powered smart speaker has recorded in your private home or office, have a look at http://www.amazon.com/alexaprivacy. Fortunately for our house, most of these recordings consist of teenagers ironically asking Alexa to play Despacito, our family belting out the lyrics to various Queen anthems, and desperate searches for recipes based on the contents of pantries ravaged by previously mentioned teenagers. More importantly, despite living with someone who is a staunch advocate of privacy and who has made no effort to hide that fact, our family has obviously agreed to give up some of that privacy for the (sometimes meager) convenience and amusement the device offers. We also have a Ring doorbell on our porch and have also opted into sharing some of that video footage (at our discretion) with our neighbors, again potentially sacrificing some privacy in trade for a technologically amplified neighborhood watch.
Each person and family must decide how much privacy they are willing to sacrifice in exchange for security, and keep a very watchful eye for the point at which the sacrifice escalates from privacy to the abrogation of personal freedoms. Though we aren’t explicitly told how Orwell’s Oceania transformed into the nightmarish surveillance state, it’s easy to see how they got there. The seductive lure of convenience and personal gratification is a sure-fire way to gradually erode personal privacy and security without raising an eyebrow, just as sure and slow as a stream carving a grand canyon.
For those of you who haven’t seen the Amazon Echo in action yet, it can be quite an eye opener. We are quickly converging on an environment that was not long ago considered science fiction. The Echo can quietly sit in the corner of your room, waiting for anyone in the family to give it a command, whether it’s to play some music, check the weather or order something from (surprise surprise!) Amazon. It’s also a perfect example of technology racing ahead of the law, and unlike the ongoing controversy around email and ECPA, the stakes are much higher because of who is allegedly at risk: our children. I’ll admit that this may seem a bit melodramatic, but the Guardian US isn’t wrong when pointing out that Echo and other products like it (think Apple’s Siri and Google Now) might actually be in violation of COPPA. For those of you in the room who are not lawyers, this is the Children’s Online Privacy & Protection Act of 1998 which, among many things, prohibits the recording and storage of a child’s voice without explicit permission of their parents or legal guardian.
What this means for you:
Even though I am a parent of young child for whom COPPA was enacted to protect, it hasn’t been too hard to suppress the urge to disconnect and discard every voice-activated, internet-connected device we own (which would be quite a few, including my daughter’s precious iPad). As with many technology items that dance on the edge of privacy invasion, I weigh the convenience and value they bring against the loss of privacy and security they inherently pose. I do see the problems technology like this presents: thousands (possibly millions) of parents set down products like Echo and Siri right in front of their children precisely because using them is simple and intuitive, and in the case of Echo, they are actually designed for use by everyone in the family. However, most people probably don’t realize that today’s voice recognition technology relies on pushing recordings of voice commands to the cloud where they are cataloged and processed to improve algorithms. Not only do those recordings store our children’s voices, they are also thick with meta data like marketing preferences, “Alexa, how much does that toy cost?” and location data, “Alexa, where is the nearest ice cream shop?” I’m pretty sure none of us gave explicit permission to Apple before allowing our kids to use Siri on their iPads and iPhones. If you were to adhere to a strict interpretation of COPPA, Apple, Amazon and Google (as well as many others) have an FTC violation on their hands that could cost them as much as $16,000 per incident.
As for your Echo (or smartphone or tablet) – only you should judge whether it’s an actual risk to your child. For the moment, the law is unclear, and knowing our government, likely to remain so long after the buying public makes up its own mind.