In a follow up to our recent ITRC blog “Did you get a snoop for Christmas?” I wanted to share a personal story that many of you may relate to.
As someone who is very privacy-centric, I love exploring and experiencing many of the gadgets and goodies that are available to make our lives easier and more fun. My husband enjoys this as well, so at the last minute I decided to get him an Echo as a gift.
I had already done my homework on how the device works, like what data they are gathering and storing. I read up on perspectives from both privacy advocates and technology fans, so I felt equipped to handle this responsibility. I had been forewarned that I was about to conduct an experiment with my privacy expectations in my own home. But as a seasoned professional, I figured I could weather the storm knowing that I had invited this stranger into my home.
Robert Arkin, robot ethicist and director of Mobile Robot Laboratory at the Georgia Institute Of Technology, once said about the pros and cons of technology, “You can choose to stay out, paddle, or plunge in.” While I’m not usually one to plunge in, staying out isn’t the right choice for me either. How can I provide authentic opinions if I don’t have my own personal experiences?
I knew ahead of time that Alexa would be recording everything that we asked her. I knew that the data would be stored and crunched, then used for the purposes disclosed in the privacy statements and T&Cs (Terms & Conditions). I also knew that there were definitely future uses that I couldn’t even fathom yet. But I told myself I wouldn’t be compromising my comfort or security by asking for music or a weather report or how many grams are in an ounce. It did not escape me that this is still data about me that is being collected, but I decided that this was all in keeping with my “paddle in” approach. I was still cautious in advance, knowing that the full ramifications are yet to be understood.
We decided to put Alexa in our upstairs office. Most of the time spent in that room is largely silent anyway, since we are working online, reading, etc. Of course, for the occasional call, we could always remember to mute the Alexa microphone just to be certain. Since it always has to be “on” in order to hear the wake word “Alexa,” muting it was something I would need to do whenever I was in my office. Knowing me, I would be just as likely to cut the power if need be.
This is all good in theory. Now for the practical experience part: fast forward to December 26 when I was sitting downstairs in my living room talking with my son. We needed batteries for the remote and I asked him if he could pick some up at the store. Then I casually said, “Or I could ask Alexa to buy batteries.” We both laughed until I could hear her—from UPSTAIRS, remember—rattling off all of the different choices of battery types. We stopped laughing and looked at each other. It was like being caught complaining about an elderly relative that you thought was out of earshot. It was creepy.
To be sure, I did say the wake word Alexa, and it was a request that would be in keeping with what she was designed for, but I wasn’t talking to her, I was talking about her. And she was listening, FROM UPSTAIRS, for Pete’s sake. In less than 24 hours, I had the real experience I was seeking. And it taught me a lot.
Returning her may not be an option as I’m already guilty of personifying her, and she was a gift after all. But after the visceral experience of having an eavesdropper lurking upstairs, she may be relegated to the garage, where the only thing she will hear is me complaining about doing the laundry.
Eva Velasquez is the president and chief executive officer of the Identity Theft Resource Center.
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