Big Brother And Alexa Are Always Listening

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My friend John Puccio showed me the adorable Easter card his five-year-old daughter Gia created for him. In a child’s scrawl was the message “Happy Easter” and “I Love You”. Turns out it wasn’t the result of a pre-school take-home project. She just wanted to make her Daddy an Easter card, so she did what any other five-year-old would do in 2018; she asked “Alexa” how to spell the words she wanted to write.

If like me you are part of the 22 percent of Americans that already own one of these home digital assistants, it seems every day you discover something new it can do for you. These devices, with built in speakers and microphones, are very intuitive and not only perform your requested tasks, like playing a specific song or reminding you of a doctor appointment, they remember what you like and even make suggestions. They can be your alarm clock or order take-out food for you. Depending on other smart technology available in your home, they can turn off lights, unlock doors and control your thermostat.

To me, if I say “hello” to an inanimate object and it answers me back, I immediately think of The Terminator and machines taking over the world. But before you get too dependent on technology that somehow makes the TV remote control no longer needed, remember that Big Brother and Alexa are listening to everything you say.

Did you know that devices like the Amazon “Echo” or the Google “Home” are “on” all the time? For the “Echo”, you have to say the word “Alexa” to wake it. Since the device will only respond when you say the magic word, it must be listening all the time to hear it.

If the device is always listening, does it also know about your sister getting fired or that little Susie has head lice? Last year, an Arkansas court ruled Amazon had to turn over the audio recordings made by an “Echo” for evidence in a murder investigation. Seems a man was found dead and floating in a hot tub while the other party goers say they don’t know how it happened. Authorities believe foul play was involved.

Turns out someone mentioned they were listening to music through the “Echo” and, according to Amazon, there would be a recording available. Imagine that? “Echo” was recording audio while they were listening to music. Makes you want to think twice about inviting that cute little companion into your kitchen, doesn’t it? Not sure I want anything recording audio while I stuff a turkey.

Not disturbing enough for you? This week, both Amazon and Google applied for extended patents on their devices to develop new listening feature technology they say will improve your life experiences. If the “Echo” detects crying or problems with your breathing, it can then immediately contact 911 for you. A few weeks ago, I talked about YouTube replacing your Dad – are Amazon and Google now trying to replace your Mother, too? If it hears you coughing, is a hand going to come out of the device to feel your forehead for temperature or will it just order chicken soup from Panera for you?

Wait, it gets worse. Google wants to patent a new video-based technology for their “Home” device that would have the ability to recognize Will Smith’s face on a T-shirt sitting on the floor of your closet. Then it could provide you with a movie recommendation when his new movie is playing near you. Why can’t they develop technology that would pick up that T-Shirt and put it into the washer instead?

Do I have to be careful when having a conversation in my house for fear that I’ll be admonished for enjoying reruns of The Honeymooners instead of the new shows trending on Netflix? What if Alexa catches me watching a Yankee game on a night the Mets are off? Will pinstriped memorabilia start showing up in my mailbox? If I curse at Alexa, is she going to get back at me by calling my wife and telling her, “Did you know your husband is out playing golf instead of mowing the lawn?”

Maybe I should just unplug the thing and listen to music on my own. “Alexa, where did I put my CD Collection?”

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