“Alexa, who does the BigBrotherAward 2018 in the ‘Consumer Protection’ category go to?”
Alexa voice: “The BigBrotherAward 2018 in the ‘Consumer Protection’ Category goes to
the Amazon company, for its speaking virtual assistant, Alexa.”
I presume that there would be a lot of applause for this kind of winner, although I haven’t even mentioned Apple Siri, Google Assistant, Microsoft Cortana, Samsung Bixby and Nuance, which we could largely have awarded at the same time. But Amazon Alexa is the most award-worthy of them all. The device listens in my home 24 hours a day, constantly waiting for me to say the word “Alexa”. As soon as it ‘hears’ that word, it records the sentences I say next and sends these to computers in the Amazon Cloud for analysis. There my text is translated, evaluated, and then activities are triggered remotely. For example, a timer or alarm is set, music matching my current mood – or whatever the device thinks my current mood could be – is played, a drum roll is kicked off or a new golden hamster is ordered online. “Alexa” is Amazon’s strategy for even more dominance in the online retail market. This makes Amazon even more similar to ‘The Shop’ in German author Marc-Uwe Kling’s book “Qualityland”. Are we therefore giving a negative award for economic astuteness and success? No. What is reprehensible is the ambition to get too big and come perilously close to a state of hubris – that is dangerous.
Do I need to say more? Do I really have to substantiate why an eavesdropping interface that comes disguised as an alarm clock but that is actually an all-knowing butler in someone else’s service, that lets me personally carry it into my bedroom and connect it to the world-wide spying network, should receive a BigBrotherAward? No, I don’t have to do that. Do I?
Congratulations to Amazon “Alexa”. That’s all. Mr presenter, your turn to take over. [… pause …] Hang on, please remain seated. Of course I have more to say!
Rena Tangens spoke in her award speech earlier about the “perfect link between the totalitarian surveillance state from George Orwell’s ‘1984’ and the normalised, only seemingly free consumers in Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’.” The so-called virtual assistants are the pesky extra in that total surveillance system that calls itself ‘smart’ but that is actually satanic. Scylla and Charybdis in one. The private space (Alexa) as much as the public space (‘smart’ streetlights) are turning against me – against my freedom, my agency, my personal development, my dignity. Soon it will be a reality that whenever I speak on the street, the streetlight will identify my voice. Who the person behind that voice is has been betrayed by Alexa, which gobbled up my voice profile and threw it at the Big Data leech to digest. This imaginary data leech will then not only know who I am visiting but also which route I took on the way.
Today, as this is only beginning to get introduced, I have taken up a new habit: as I get into someone else’s home, I call out “Alexa, please order one hundred cans of ravioli”. If the owners react nervously, I know that the home I just entered is bugged.
And if there really are people out there who install this device – feeling that they now have their own butler – please remember that via a mobile app, the person installing the “Alexa” device can access anything that is brought to this device’s ears. Those installing the device can see a list of all fragments of speech that Alexa intercepted, in textual form with date and time, and they can replay them with just a click. That is something to keep in mind for stalking victims counsellors, for example.
I played around with this device for a few days. It’s nice to be able to just say, while cooking pasta, “Alexa, timer, 8 minutes”. Or when the alarm sounds in the morning, without having to turn around, just snarl “Alexa, 10 more minutes”. But if that entails the recording being stored in Amazon’s Internet and the company knowing when I get out of bed, then I’d better forego this extra comfort. Because with Alexa, setting this alarm is no longer a local action on my smartphone, it becomes a piece of Big Data owned by Amazon.
People keep asking me whether Amazon would do anything evil with “Alexa”. If it might not secretly record everything said in the room and send it all to Amazon, even if the keyword “Alexa” has not been uttered. The weekly paper “Die Zeit” asked a technician from Tactical Tech to investigate. And he said: “Well, maybe. The device encrypts all the data it sends, so there is no way of knowing whether it only sends ‘desired’ utterances or more.”
Our guess is: Amazon will probably stay on the safe side. What the device is designed to do is bad enough. And even worse are the plans in the making.
We sought out patents that Amazon, Google & co. have secured, they show very nicely which way this future under the motto of “digitalisation first, concerns second”1 is supposed to go. The companies are not only holding patents for identifying speakers, but also for recognising from their voice what mood they are currently in. Peter Wedde’s “Workplace” award just now told us about an app that uses such technology. When mum is crying in despair in the morning, a soothing liquor will be delivered. Calling out “Alexa, music!” will use the psychological profile known to the company to play either punk rock or Gregorian chants. Or Amazon will issue a preventative call to the police to ‘swat’ the premises if the algorithms gleam from the voices that somebody might be about to start an assassination attempt. There are patents for differentiating between a number of voices and associate these with individuals. So Little Jack can keep trying to say in a low voice, “Alexa, show some porn”, the child protection would prevent that. A side effect is that even more information on the private sphere and the family that might be helpful for consumer manipulation would reach the company. And as to “Alexa” only responding to its wake-word, that will soon be a thing of the past: There are patents for searching the full audio stream for certain keywords – and respond by playing commercials. So when you say, “darling, shall we go out for dinner tonight?”, Alexa will cut in to offer the special deal at ‘Little Italy’ and proceed to reserve a table on the terrace.
Like a little puppy, “Alexa” tries to learn all of this about us, by continually listening to our voices, intonation, seeking out certain words such as “like” or “bought”, in order to bury what it picked up like old rotten bones in Amazon’s large data garden. And Amazon’s reward comes in a Gollum voice: “My cutie!”
Children in their room might be called to order automatically when their fighting gets too loud. Or parents could be warned if the children whisper to hedge some plan.
As usual, the companies will say that these are all just features that they had patented ‘in passing’ – they would never want to implement them. But, first, I have been given this kind of response over thirty years, but I see that everything that “would never be implemented” is a normality today. And second, we can never know if such features will get implemented and activated more or less secretly or even openly – or if that has already happened.
The issue is not ‘abuse’. It is the potential that this device has even today. And the potential for Amazon to exploit this without mercy. Not to forget that Alexa (just like a smartphone) is nothing else than a computer, for which all kinds of companies are now developing so-called skills – in other words, apps –, which we are supposed to install on the “Alexa” system and which will again shuffle some kind of data from the home into the net for the makers’ own purposes. There is the “fart” skill (yes, it does exactly what you are thinking now – only at the moment it does not include a scent), the Fox News TV skill (which tops the list of popular skills), the waste collection calendar skill (which does not work here in Bielefeld) and hundreds or thousands more. And in the end, nobody will want to be held responsible – just as in the Facebook case, where the company feigns bewilderment about what Cambridge Analytica has done with their data. While in reality, investigating people, their habits, most secret desires, friendships, political convictions and even their health issues is these companies’ business model. And that applies to Amazon as well.
That being said, I also want to pass the buck to those people that invite these playthings into their lives and motivate ruthless merchants to make and sell instruments that put our civilisation at risk. We can see this right now (spring 2018) in the current Facebook debate.2
Dear people, be reasonable. We have seen a Federal Minister for Justice, Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, resign her post in 1996 because her (liberal) party decided to back the “Major Eavesdropping Attack” (Großer Lauschangriff, the German name for audio surveillance being used on private homes in the course of state investigations). Today we are inviting a huge eavesdropping attack right into our own most intimate spaces. Do not surrender yourselves, keep on eagerly opposing – a trait that is indispensable for a viable civilisation and democracy. Yes, that does entail having to set the alarm by hand for a few more years. But if we all do this, we can all envy our descendants for being able to use comfortable technology without the fear of falling victim to manipulation and power interests. Because it is up to us to make sure now that new technologies embody privacy by design and respect our freedom. That is possible! But for that we need to remain steadfast and resistant – even against our friends as well as ourselves – and we must not give in, not to a naïve faith in technology, not to playfulness or control freakery, and not even to laziness and surveillance mania.
Congratulations, Amazon, for already earning your third BigBrotherAward3.
1 Translator’s remark: this slogan was (in)famously posted across German cities by the liberal party F.D.P. during the federal election campaign in 2017.
2 BigBrotherAward 2011 to Facebook – https://bigbrotherawards.de/2011/kommunikation-facebook
3 BigBrotherAward 2015, Workplace category: https://bigbrotherawards.de/2015/arbeitswelt-amazon-logistik
BigBrotherAward 2015, Economy category: https://bigbrotherawards.de/2015/wirtschaft-amazon-mechanical-turk-elance-o-desk