Sleepwalking Into A ‘Smart’ World

Sleepwalking Into A ‘Smart’ World

Although the Amazon Echo, or Alexa as she is otherwise known, sounds great and looks good, Charlotte Weekly questions whether it is compromising our lives, rather than making them easier

In 1984, George Orwell wrote of the telescreen: a device designed to listen, record, monitor and track your behaviour. It is now 2017, and we have the new, improved Amazon Echo, and she goes by name of Alexa. One is the tyrannical tool of a dystopian society; the other went on sale for £89.99 this Christmas.

2017 will undoubtedly go down as the year when voice recognition went mainstream. Smart home devices have stormed their way onto the mass market. It is predicted that Amazon have sold over 20 million of their Echo devices in 2017 alone. The irony of this is not lost on the public: in the UK, famous for our extensive CCTV surveillance system, we have now welcomed those same cameras into our most private sanctuaries. Therein lies the key difference: mass surveillance has not been forced upon anyone, a la 1984. Instead, we are the ones who willingly invite these data collection technologies into our own homes.

“Alexa is always listening, but not always recording” a statement released by Amazon reads, intending to reassure, but it has, in fact, raised more questions than it has answered. What exactly is the nature of Amazon’s data collection algorithm? “Amazon Echo, Echo Plus, and Echo Dot use on-device keyword spotting to detect the wake word,” reads Amazon’s FAQs page. “When these devices detect the wake word, they stream audio to The Cloud, including a fraction of audio before the wake word”.

Put bluntly, Alexa is a hacker’s wet dream: a device that is passively monitoring until it hears a “wake word”, and then pipes that data to Amazon’s servers. A hacker could have (and likely already has) hacked into an Alexa device, forcing it to record anything and everything. Either a hacker can sit on the connection between the Echo and the Amazon servers or, more likely, re-program Alexa to send traffic to their personal server.

Vulnerabilities in Amazon Echo and Google Home have already been exposed. In the aptly named ‘Dolphin attack’ of September 2017, hackers successfully used ultrasonic frequencies to gain access to and reprogram the smart devices. Specifically, Chinese researchers from Zheijiang University used an ultrasonic transducer and an amplifier to convert voice commands into ultrasounds inaudible to the human ear. Through issuing these commands they were able to force the Echo device to carry out a number of functions, including accessing a malicious website and initiating a video call without alerting the user.

The Echo’s operating model and data security are ultimately incompatible. Because Alexa sends audio back to The Cloud, and The Cloud then processes it, the information isn’t encrypted. Encrypted information, by definition, scrubs the message of any information. As Amazon are aiming to be the biggest, and the best, in Silicon Valley, having all of this user data to analyse is exactly what they want. They are unlikely to encrypt information, and instead rely on the security of their servers. It is like writing all of your sensitive information into a notebook, then putting that notebook in a locked room and hoping nobody breaks in.

Therefore, it is time to ask the question: “Who exactly are our smart devices working for?”.

It was November 2015 when a man in Arkansas was accused of the murder of one of his former colleagues. James Bates was on trial for the murder of Victor Collins, who was found dead in Bates’ hot tub in the early hours of the morning. Bates claimed that his colleague had drowned. However, on discovery that Bates owned one of Amazon’s Echo devices, the court issued a search warrant for Amazon to hand over all of the data that had been collected by Alexa on the night of the murder. However, it seems Amazon’s mantra of “always listening, not always recording” was not followed through.

Amazon fought against the court to protect the privacy of Bates’ information by filing a motion in February this year to void the search warrant citing the First Amendment, but ultimately Bates handed over the data from Alexa. Amazon Echo was not the only smart device Bates owned: his smart water meter showed a large spike in water used in the early hours of the morning. The prosecutors used this information in the trial to incriminate Bates, suggesting he might have used a hose to wash blood from his patio.

The case of James Bates shines a light on the implications of the kind of ‘smart’ society the modern world is fast becoming. Smart phones, smart cars, smart watches, smart fridges, smart benches are increasingly common, and even smart rubbish bins have been created.  The latest invention from Silicon Valley, smart rubbish bins are designed to encourage millennials to recycle, by uploading photos of the contents of their rubbish to social media. We are being sold the idea of endless data at our fingertips. Yet, I wonder if the smartification of everyday life has in fact achieved quite the opposite: is it the individuals themselves that have been reduced to nothing but data?

Why don’t we ask Alexa? After all, she seems to know everything.

Featured Image Credit: pexels

Charlotte Weekly
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