Alexa is a Fed

Do Not Put This Surveillance Tech in Your Home

Photo by Andres Urena on Unsplash

One of my favorite movies is the German film, The Lives of Others. It tells the story of an East German Stasi agent who is tasked with spying on a group of dissident playwrights. The apartment of the leader of the theatre troupe was bugged, and every night the Stasi agent settled in to listen to meetings the group thought they were having in secret. It was uncomfortable and anxiety-inducing to watch the watcher watching, to see privacy being invaded so thoroughly. Particularly because the transgressions were being recorded with the purpose of meting out harsh punishment. The anticipation of waiting for the door to be broken down was unbearable.

Surveillance (perceived or real) is a powerful tool of imprisonment.

Jeremy Bentham understood that well. In the late 18th century, the philosopher posited the Panopticon — a system of institutional design that placed a single watchtower in the center of a circular structure. From the watchtower, every inmate could be observed. The inmates, however, couldn’t see into the tower and couldn’t tell when they were being observed. The Panopticon was intended to exert as much control over the inmates as possible with minimal expenditure and effort.

Panopticism as a philosophy has evolved with changing political landscapes and technology, but its central guiding principle remains the same: the power and control are with the watcher, and the observed are objects.

Our digital world is evolving into a Panopticon. I don’t think that’s disputable. To engage in any online activity is to assume the risk of being surveilled. The metadata on our mobile devices provides even more information: where we’ve been and how long we were there, who we’ve spoken to on the phone and for how long. We carry our own personal Stasi agents in our pockets.

Alexa, and other voice-controlled assistants are a new wrinkle, though. Yes, our mobile phones can function as live mics, but that’s not their intended purpose.

Alexa, on the other hand, is supposed to be listening. All the time. Incessantly.

Alexa also records without explicitly being instructed to, and that data is stored on Amazon’s servers.

The most troubling widely reported incident with Alexa involved the voice assistant recording a couple’s conversation and sending it to a contact. The friend, thinking they’d been hacked, called in a panic and urged them to turn off the device immediately.

There was no evidence the device had been hacked, and Amazon described the event was “an extremely rare occurrence.” Translation: it had happened before, and they’d thank us all to stop bringing it up.

Thankfully, the couple had been discussing hardwood floors — as banal a subject as possible. The contact who received the recorded conversation was the husband’s work colleague. What if he’d been complaining to his wife about his job? What if they’d been discussing an incredibly personal matter — something to do with their health or finances? What if they’d been fighting and screaming horrible things at each other? The situation could have been incredibly embarrassing and negatively affected the husband’s work life.

Alexa and other voice assistants aren’t connected to emergency services yet, but if the smart speakers are connected to a landline, the devices can dial the police. This coincidence seems to have saved a woman who was being abused by her boyfriend. More of these cases will come to light, and sooner rather than later, there will be an option to allow these devices to connect to emergency services.

Police in the United Kingdom are already lobbying to use voice assistants as distribution points for bulletins and intake points for reports. The stated goal is more efficient communication with the public.

Accomplishing this requires live mics, speakers, and recording devices in your home be connected to live mics, speakers, and recording devices in a police station.

No, thank you.

These developments are coming, and when they do, you’ll have installed a watchtower in the center of your home, and you’ll never know when you’re being observed.

The point of the Panopticon isn’t just to control — it is to punish. This is why mixing law enforcement into this already dystopian scenario is so scary. What happens if Alexa misconstrues something and a S.W.A.T. team shows up at your door?

Encounters with the police can escalate into deadly violence incredibly quickly in some jurisdictions. Alexa blowing up your spot might go very badly for you or someone you love. This isn’t just a Black Lives Matter issue. If there is someone in your home who might not be able to understand and obey police orders because they are mentally ill, or hearing-impaired, or on medication that is making them behave erratically, it’s a bad idea to do anything to increase the likelihood of armed police showing up on your doorstep.

These voice assistants are going to increase contact with the police, and that will be a terrible thing for some communities.

It’s been made abundantly clear that many of the people running giant tech companies don’t understand the ethics of privacy. If their interface with law enforcement reflects this, it will create the potential for civil rights abuses on a massive scale.

How will search and seizure law deal with these devices? Could these developments broaden the scope of a wiretap to include every conversation had within listening range of a voice assistant? If so, all the police will need to do is have the tech company toggle a few switches to gain access to your entire home.

The FBI has labelled Black Lives Matter activists “Black Identity Extremists” and is surveilling them, mostly digitally. There is a new class of dissidents for the Panopticon to monitor and control, and a cadre of agents has been assigned the task. The net will eventually widen to include their targets’ friends and relations discussing them next to a voice assistant.

Alexa is a fed.

Do not put this surveillance tech in your home. You never know who might be listening.