Alexa, Police and Privacy

It was reported in the media that a woman’s life was possibly saved by an Amazon Echo device placing a 911 call. During a dispute that turned violent with her boyfriend he allegedly said “Did you call the cops?” which the device interpreted as an instruction and placed the call. This story may sound convincing, but is also false. As explained in various articles on CNET, Wired, NY Times and other places, an Amazon Echo device cannot activated with the words “Did you” and more crucially cannot place a 911 call.

The idea however is out there. Both the Wired article, as well as a Chief Seattle Geek blog post explore the potential benefits of Alexa being able to call emergency services. This can be done intentionally after being instructed, “Alexa, call 999!”, or on the devices own initiative when it detects smoke from a smoke detector, hears gunshots or senses burglars.

From there I followed the link to “Just How Dangerous is Alexa“, a blog post by Shelly Palmer discussing the other side of the equation. How much privacy and control do we have to give up to enjoy these benefits? In fact, how much control and privacy have we given up already? Alexa already listens to /everything/ we say, it just does not record it and does not transmit it back to Amazon.

I find most puzzling that after detailing Alexa’s functionality with the obvious potential for abuse—after all, does not record is very different from cannot record—Shelly Palmer then proceeds to claim that

Alexa is NOT dangerous. The data it collects is NOT dangerous. Nothing about an Amazon Echo is dangerous. It’s awesome.

The source of this optimism remains a mystery to me.

In the debate about privacy, technology moves the line between acceptable and intrusive. Imagine, twenty years ago, suggesting to place a microphone in people’s homes and that listens for crime and automatically alerts the police. Replace police with thought-police and this is taken straight out of Orwell’s 1984. Now, however, we are placing such devices in our homes ourselves. We are even paying for them. True, they are not connected to the police, but they are always listening. And now that the technological capability exists, we see the first offshoots of a debate. Wired’s headline reads “An Amazon Echo Can’t Call the Police—But Maybe It Should“. The unimaginable starts to be imagined.

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