Who is Listening?

When I was younger and email just started to become a thing, I had a boss tell me “never put anything in an email that you don’t want on the front page of the paper”. Solid advice and something that always stuck in my mind. As technology has changed and evolved, maintaining our privacy online has gotten trickier. Text messages, Snapchat, and Twitter are all open to possible exposure and one must take care not to be reckless with words, pictures, etc.

Despite all of this, I never thought that I would have to be wary of what I say or do in my own home. With the evolution of the smart home, Alexa, Google Home, and Siri have brought new risks. These devices are among those that have been accused of “listening in” to our conversations under the guise product developments.

We easily dismiss the thought that our phones are listening in whenever we discuss a new product or new recipe and see it mysteriously appear on our newsfeeds. But we know Google has listened in on private conversations – we just don’t know everything they were doing with the information.

Recently it was alleged that Amazon’s Alexa had not only been recording customers having sex but employees were listening in:

“It’s been said that couples having sex and even what sounded like a sex attack have been heard by staff,” the 28-year-old analyst said to the paper. “Amazon told us everyone we were listening to had consented so I never felt like I was spying.”

Can you imagine that the most intimate moments of your life were being passed around some Amazon office somewhere for the enjoyment of their employees? This is sick and twisted and well beyond what consumers expect from Alexa.

“The companies claim that recordings only start with the use of an alert word, but there’s lots of evidence that’s not correct,” Rotenberg said of the broader digital assistant market. “They seem to be routinely monitoring speech, which is not surprising if you’re trying to catch an alert. But from our perspective this is classic unlawful surveillance.”  -Marc Rotenberg, EPIC

Last week it was reported that Facebook was transcribing chats from Messenger:

Facebook Inc. has been paying hundreds of outside contractors to transcribe clips of audio from users of its services, according to people with knowledge of the work.

The work has rattled the contract employees, who are not told where the audio was recorded or how it was obtained — only to transcribe it, said the people, who requested anonymity for fear of losing their jobs. They’re hearing Facebook users’ conversations, sometimes with vulgar content, but do not know why Facebook needs them transcribed, the people said.

It is time for us to examine the risks these modern conveniences pose to our personal privacy. Big Tech has shown a total disregard for our privacy, time and time again. They lure us in with shiny gadgets but take so much more in return.

I for one am no longer willing to let Big Tech into my home in exchange for a simpler way to draft a grocery list. It’s back to paper lists for me. Alexa, you have been unplugged!