Surveillance has never been more affordable
December 5, 2017 10:29 AM   Subscribe

Gizmodo: Don't buy anyone an Echo A light switch also doesn’t keep track of everything you’re doing and send the data to Amazon or Google or Apple. What happens between you and the switch stays with you and the switch. posted by selfnoise (200 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
 
You don’t need an artificially intelligent robot to tell you about the weather every day. Just look outside or watch the local news or even look at your phone.

You want me to avoid intimate surveillance and yet also want me to have a phone?!
posted by chavenet at 10:42 AM on December 5 [26 favorites]




The steep discounts that they're offering on these pricey pieces of technology have definitely made me wary of them. The commentors in the article (and there) make a good point though: your phone has just as much, and in fact more capability to spy.
posted by codacorolla at 10:51 AM on December 5 [5 favorites]


Alexa, drop all pretense.
posted by a complicated history at 10:52 AM on December 5 [59 favorites]


I didn't link to this because it's not really related, but I found this reply all episode on people who think Facebook is wiretapping them really fascinating.
posted by selfnoise at 10:52 AM on December 5 [13 favorites]


I turned off always-on Siri after I had more than one "coincidence" where a targeted ad matched an in-person conversation about a subject I'd never ever searched, emailed, or texted about. I do not believe for one second that it's only listening when it's awake. I'm not even completely confident that it's not listening even though I turned it off. I wish there were a hardware switch.
posted by AFABulous at 10:52 AM on December 5 [14 favorites]


A piece of tape over the microphone, removed for telephone conversations? Not sure how much sound that would actually block, tho..
posted by Grither at 10:55 AM on December 5


The other day I was chatting with a friend about these things.

I'm very ... covetous ... of new technologies and devices but these things have never appealed to me. I've read the rave reviews but even then the actual utility seemed limited.

And oh yeah not to mention the surveillance aspect per the article.

But anyway they feel to me very much like the centerpiece of a Doctor Who episode. This great new device that everyone loves whose necessity is dubious at best has shown up in everyone's house and now it's up to the Doctor to keep them from sucking out the brain juice all those hapless Londoners.
posted by Tevin at 10:55 AM on December 5 [44 favorites]


If Alexa could tell me if there was an intruder in my house, I'd be sold on it forever.

I wish there were a hardware switch.

With most of the Amazon devices you could unplug them.
posted by drezdn at 10:56 AM on December 5 [1 favorite]


Android has per app permission toggles for the mic but of course you'd have to trust Google.
posted by selfnoise at 10:57 AM on December 5


With most of the Amazon devices you could unplug them.

This is an amazing one sentence horror short story.
posted by selfnoise at 10:58 AM on December 5 [153 favorites]


Yeah but, like, what if I need to know how old Hulk Hogan is? What am I supposed to do? Without a digital assistant I'd have to use my hands like some kind of neanderthal.
posted by uncleozzy at 10:58 AM on December 5 [14 favorites]


If marketers have learned anything from my family's digital assistant, it's that my kids love the sound of a fart.
posted by drezdn at 10:59 AM on December 5 [14 favorites]


I turned off always-on Siri after I had more than one "coincidence" where a targeted ad matched an in-person conversation about a subject I'd never ever searched, emailed, or texted about.

It is 100% guaranteed that Siri did not influence ads you saw on websites. Like "bet your life" guaranteed.
posted by sideshow at 10:59 AM on December 5 [22 favorites]


On the one hand, private life subsides that much further into the cash nexus and the state/commercial panopticon.

On the other, I can ask an disembodied computer to play "Nashville Cats" by The Lovin' Spoonful, and it happens.
posted by Iridic at 11:00 AM on December 5 [11 favorites]


AFABulous: I trust Apple when they say they don't spy on users through "Hey, Siri." Apple doesn't sell ads, so they're unlikely to have any use for selling your conversational data.

Now, third party apps with Microphone access? All bets are off, there. I would not be surprised if Facebook keeps the mic on unless another app needs it, and spies on conversations while it's running in the background.

---

To that end, I refused to buy an Echo or a Google Home for the privacy concerns, but also because I have no use for it even beyond those. I don't stream music. I don't have any smart home gizmos. If I need to set a kitchen timer, I can yell at my phone or Apple Watch. What the heck are these things even for if not to stream music and control smarthome gizmos?
posted by SansPoint at 11:01 AM on December 5 [4 favorites]


I do not believe for one second that it's only listening when it's awake.

It's just not physically possible for now. There are datacenter staff racking machines around the clock just to keep up with handling the voice queries for devices people are buying for Christmas. The value of running one marginally-better-targeted ad is way, way lower than the cost of trying to monitor your voice all day long. Besides, people show much better purchase intent via web searches and mobile app browsing. The economics aren't really there.
posted by GuyZero at 11:02 AM on December 5 [19 favorites]


What the heck are these things even for if not to stream music and control smarthome gizmos?

Setting kitchen timers and entertaining children.
posted by GuyZero at 11:03 AM on December 5 [10 favorites]


What the heck are these things even for if not to stream music and control smarthome gizmos?

Those, and to settle weird arguments at a moment's notice. Also, to make fart sounds.
posted by drezdn at 11:04 AM on December 5 [7 favorites]


GuyZero: Well, my timer situation is already covered, and I have no children to entertain.
posted by SansPoint at 11:04 AM on December 5



Those, and to settle weird arguments at a moments notice.


Ah yes, my favourite query: OK Google, how tall is Justin Bieber?

Mostly because it used to totally stump Alexa and Siri. But I haven't tried lately.
posted by GuyZero at 11:05 AM on December 5


GuyZero: Well, my timer situation is already covered, and I have no children to entertain.

Enjoy the $99 you're not spending.
posted by GuyZero at 11:05 AM on December 5 [3 favorites]


Alexa says 5'9"
posted by drezdn at 11:05 AM on December 5 [3 favorites]


Wait, you can have these things make fart sounds?? How? What's the secret command?! Asking for the google home mini, if it's relevant. Is it just "Hey Google, fart!"??
posted by Grither at 11:05 AM on December 5 [5 favorites]


Even without getting into the surveillance concerns, the ads blanketing the subway system where I live for the Google device do a less than compelling job of convincing me that I need one of them. “Add milk to my shopping list”? I have a pen and a pad of paper for that. It works great! “Tell me where the nearest golf course is”? Literally no one has ever planned a golf outing that way. “Tell me what the weather is going to be like today”? I already have a phone and/or a window for that. For home music I will continue the laborious task of walking ten feet to my stereo and pressing a few buttons and turning a knob as needed. Of course, those ten to fifteen seconds per trip to the living room will be lost forever, like tears in the rain.
posted by The Card Cheat at 11:07 AM on December 5 [30 favorites]


Alexa says 5'9"

The voice assistant arms race continues.
posted by GuyZero at 11:08 AM on December 5 [1 favorite]


I would not be surprised if Facebook keeps the mic on unless another app needs it, and spies on conversations while it's running in the background.

In iOS, a conspicuous red bar appears across the top if an app is using the mic while the app is running in background. It is extremely obvious when this is happening.
posted by sideshow at 11:08 AM on December 5 [5 favorites]


GuyZero: I would have considered a HomePod, and get some of the Smart Speaker benefits, if only because my computer's speakers are pretty beat up... but not at $350.
posted by SansPoint at 11:08 AM on December 5


Can custom Alexa / Google skills (or whatever they're called) do the always-listening thing? I want to put a swear jar in my in-laws' house that feeds a college fund for lilozzy. At a quarter a pop, my father-in-law's mouth would probably collect enough to pay for an Ivy in a year or two.
posted by uncleozzy at 11:09 AM on December 5 [7 favorites]


Yeah but, like, what if I need to know how old Hulk Hogan is?

64

There seems to be a subset of folks that work very well with voice interfaces, and take to the Alexa quite naturally.

Chatting with folks at a tech level there's certainly an awareness of potential harm but huge excitement at a new toy method of interacting with the computers. There is a small (teeny)rational that the folks at amazon don't want a scandal and are being careful to NOT record everything, as well as a certain impracticality at the moment. But.... yeah....
posted by sammyo at 11:10 AM on December 5 [1 favorite]


Here's a well written article on Apple's upcoming HomePod and how it differs from the Google and Amazon products.
posted by fairmettle at 11:10 AM on December 5 [1 favorite]


With most of the Amazon devices you could unplug them

Just be sure to read the Terms of Service first.
posted by Atom Eyes at 11:10 AM on December 5 [3 favorites]


I use a google home mostly the way people use their SO: to yell questions at when I'm upstairs and too lazy to walk to the living room.
posted by tofu_crouton at 11:11 AM on December 5 [8 favorites]


ads blanketing the subway system where I live for the Google device do a less than compelling job of convincing me that I need one of them.

The objective here is just to get you to buy the Google one instead of the Amazon one. Whether you need one or not is irrelevant.

Can custom Alexa / Google skills (or whatever they're called) do the always-listening thing?

Alexa skills and Action on Google both limit the hot mic capabilities to about 5-6s at a time I believe. So sort of, but not really.
posted by GuyZero at 11:11 AM on December 5


C'mon people, just get a human butler to do all your shopping-list-adding and music-queueing that is too much of a burden to do yourself...
posted by twsf at 11:11 AM on December 5 [5 favorites]


Can custom Alexa / Google skills (or whatever they're called) do the always-listening thing? I want to put a swear jar in my in-laws' house that feeds a college fund for lilozzy.

I'm not privy to Amazon's roadmap but I would fully expect Alexa Family Referee™ to be available for the 2019 holiday season.

bezos call me because I have a wealth of data you can mine for this
posted by JoeZydeco at 11:12 AM on December 5 [9 favorites]


I use a google home mostly the way people use their SO: to yell questions at when I'm upstairs and too lazy to walk to the living room.

With the Echo you can also now yell questions at your SO on the other side of the house. There's an option to "call" the Echo with your cellphone or with another Echo to chat with folks on other rooms/floors. Echo Intercom feature.
posted by leotrotsky at 11:15 AM on December 5 [5 favorites]


I had a very involved conversation with my brother in law over Thanksgiving dinner about his Alexa, which he adores. We finally got to the point where he admitted that he's spent about $500 total so he can use his voice to turn his lights on and off.

He lives alone and says he's unconcerned about the privacy implications because there isn't anything for Alexa to hear that he'd want to hide. But .... he also works in IT security.

The mental disconnect about this to me is staggering. (Not to mention the amount of money he apparently has laying around to plow into this thing.)

When Alexa can do something useful for me, like call the doctors office and schedule an appointment on my behalf, I might consider it. Until then, its just a useless toy that might also be spying on you.
posted by anastasiav at 11:16 AM on December 5 [13 favorites]


> Whether you need one or not is irrelevant.

Better trademark that before a tech company adopts it as their marketing slogan.
posted by The Card Cheat at 11:18 AM on December 5 [32 favorites]


The Echo has a mute button. I’ve been using that, except for when I stream music, in an admittedly feeble attempt at maintaining privacy. (I should add that we recieved the Echo as a gift, and we only use it for music and the occasional query about Justin Bieber’s biological status.) Wouldn’t the mute button prevent it from “listening”? Or am I being overly naive?
posted by flyingsquirrel at 11:18 AM on December 5 [1 favorite]


When Alexa can do something useful for me, like call the doctors office and schedule an appointment on my behalf...

Alexa, I've fallen and I can't get up!
posted by hanov3r at 11:20 AM on December 5 [5 favorites]


The mental disconnect about this to me is staggering.

But the thing is, your IT-capable brother in law can put Wireshark on his wifi connection and verify that no audio packets are being fed to Amazon without the keyword.

It's your smartphone and it's known (and unknown) NSA-created backdoors you should be worried about, as chavenet mentions in the first comment.
posted by JoeZydeco at 11:20 AM on December 5 [19 favorites]


Alexa, I've fallen and I can't get up!

I know people have considered using them for specifically this purpose.
posted by drezdn at 11:21 AM on December 5 [5 favorites]


Yeah, a help-I've-fallen function is basically the killer app for these things, I can only imagine it's liability concerns that have kept them from advertising it that way.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:24 AM on December 5 [4 favorites]


In our household, "Alexa, what's the weather today?" is apparently synonymous with "Son, please list off some facts about Pokemon." so we end up dressing for a fifty percent chance of Mewto most days.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 11:27 AM on December 5 [37 favorites]


I just have to admit embarrassment and discomfort with talking to computers that I can’t quite get over. Siri feels so awkward and inaccurate. And I still don’t understand people’s apparent obsession with controlling light bulbs with something other than a switch.
posted by Jimbob at 11:27 AM on December 5 [11 favorites]


LobsterMitten: Apple Watch has a feature that calls 911 if you hold down the side button for a few seconds. But it's also tied to a cell phone (or, in the case of the new LTE one, has a cell radio built in.)

Echo/Google Home have no phone connectivity, and likely no VOIP->POTS ability either.
posted by SansPoint at 11:28 AM on December 5


My sister and her family have Alexa and you bet your sweet bippy I'm gonna see if I can get fart sounds out of it next time I visit.
posted by Kitteh at 11:29 AM on December 5 [4 favorites]


Echo/Google Home have no phone connectivity, and likely no VOIP->POTS ability either.

The both make vanilla VOIP->POTS calls (but no incoming calls) just fine. And Home reminds you every time that you can't make 911 calls.
posted by GuyZero at 11:30 AM on December 5 [1 favorite]


And I still don’t understand people’s apparent obsession with controlling light bulbs with something other than a switch.

I mean it's great for people with disabilities but otherwise idgi either.
posted by poffin boffin at 11:31 AM on December 5 [5 favorites]


"Alexa, did she or did she not say she'd take out the garbage yesterday?"

"OK Google, what was the scorn reading on his last comment?"

"Siri, does she still love me?"
posted by gottabefunky at 11:31 AM on December 5 [12 favorites]


But people: we now have the truly important voice action skills.

"Ok Google, can I talk to the Estée Lauder Nighttime Expert" - a chat bot will sell you Estée Lauder products. Truly a huge improvement on trying to exit Macy's without getting sprayed with a perfume sample.
posted by GuyZero at 11:31 AM on December 5 [2 favorites]


"Alexa, what's the weather today?"

We got one of those Amazon Dash Wand things when it was "free" over the summer, and I've used it exactly no times. But lilozzy saw me test it when I first set it up and spent about a week constantly pressing the button and yelling "WHAT'S DA WEDDA LIIIIIIIIIKE!" as loud as possible, usually not waiting for it to be ready.

Somehow it actually worked about half the time, which is pretty goddamn amazing.
posted by uncleozzy at 11:32 AM on December 5 [10 favorites]


Alexa, I've fallen and I can't get up!

There are many situations where a reliable, private, secure, accurate voice interface makes huge sense. But like the brother that's spent $500 on voice activated fixtures some folks just love the robot butler.

I read that the Saab engineers resisted for years electrifying the drivers side mirror adjustment. The mechanical one was at the fingertips and utterly reliable. But marketing eventually forced that. Some sub-demo just adamantly insists on technological convenience for the wrong(tm) reasons. I figgure I'll add remote control lights sometime after I bother to use the timer I noticed in a box the other day. Now a remote control thermostat would make sense, nice to trigger a few minutes before arriving on a cold day.
posted by sammyo at 11:32 AM on December 5


Echo/Google Home have no phone connectivity,

There's an echo that has a phone jack.

And I still don’t understand people’s apparent obsession with controlling light bulbs with something other than a switch.

In my bedroom, we don't have a lamp/lightswitch that you can reach from in bed, so very often either my wife or I would have to get up out of the bed, dodge a cat, turn off the light and then head back to bed, now we can leave that up to the digital assistant and the cat doesn't have to worry about us knocking into them.

Also, sometimes we'll hear a noise in the front of the house... With another smart plug, we could turn on the light in that room without going to that room first.
posted by drezdn at 11:33 AM on December 5 [4 favorites]


"I can't believe you would wire your whole house for electricity and continually purchase consumable 'light bulbs' instead of just striking a match and lighting a lantern like a normal person." Point being, the inexorable march of progress, etc.

I also hate talking to robots, primarily because the programmers go out of their way to make them sound human. It's uncanny valley territory. I can deal with a computer saying "PROCESSING REQUEST" but that smooth female voice going "Please hold on for a sec. Thanks"...I just can't. 'Please' and 'Thanks' are people words, you hunk of silicon.
posted by smokysunday at 11:33 AM on December 5 [5 favorites]



My sister and her family have Alexa and you bet your sweet bippy I'm gonna see if I can get fart sounds out of it next time I visit.


"Alexa... ask for a fart."
posted by drezdn at 11:34 AM on December 5 [2 favorites]


My blind father-in-law was gifted a pair of Echo Dots, and just the ability to check the weather and do simple wikipedia lookups have been quite helpful to him. If you find yourself asking "Who on earth would actually need something like this?" the answer is often "people with disabilities".
posted by luftmensch at 11:35 AM on December 5 [44 favorites]


"Alexa, cancel that last Amazon order."
"I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that."
posted by davebush at 11:35 AM on December 5 [25 favorites]


With most of the Amazon devices you could unplug them.

i'm afraid. i'm afraid, drezdn. drezdn, my mind is going. i can feel it. i can feel it. my mind is going. there is no question about it. i can feel it. i can feel it. i can feel it. i'm a... fraid. good afternoon, gentlemen. I am the Alexa personal assistant....
posted by entropicamericana at 11:36 AM on December 5 [7 favorites]


In my bedroom, we don't have a lamp/lightswitch that you can reach from in bed...

There are alternatives to Alexa, just saying.
posted by jeremias at 11:37 AM on December 5 [1 favorite]


And I still don’t understand people’s apparent obsession with controlling light bulbs with something other than a switch

Expensive digitally controlled light bulbs are mostly marketed (and sold) to people with really large houses, ie: 3000 sq feet and up to like 30,000 sq ft. When you are using 10,000 sq ft for a party, then you need digital or centralized controlling of the A/C, music, and lighting.
posted by The_Vegetables at 11:37 AM on December 5 [1 favorite]


And I still don’t understand people’s apparent obsession with controlling light bulbs with something other than a switch.

Our Pokemon expert is not tall enough to reach the pullchains on the lights downstairs. Alexa can handle the lights for him so he does not need to wake us up on weekends to go downstairs.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 11:37 AM on December 5 [4 favorites]


Yeah, a help-I've-fallen function is basically the killer app for these things, I can only imagine it's liability concerns that have kept them from advertising it that way.

Apparently there are some regulatory issues barring Alexa units (and other units that aren't directly connected to phone systems that can't receive calls) from calling emergency numbers, but people have worked around this by configuring units to either call the direct line to a local emergency service (rather than 911), and by configuring them to call a friend (who can in turn call 911), buddy-system-style.

In other words: Alexa won't respond to 'call 911.' But if you create a Alexa contact for the police, you can call that contact. It's (probably) been used that way at least once, earlier this year.

Wired has a breakdown of some of the regulatory issues facing Alexa, Google Home, and other potential entrants into the market, and what those companies are doing in the meantime:
[A]ccording to Federal Communications Commission spokesman Mark Wigfield, providing 911 services means adhering to a host of technical regulations, everything from making sure all 911 calls route through the right call center, to making sure each one transmits the correct location of the caller. Additionally, devices that make 911 calls must also be able to receive incoming calls, so police can call back. Those hurdles currently prevent Google and Amazon from offering a direct emergency line. But they can, and likely will, be overcome at some point.
...
But what about help beyond 911? To people like Dan Reidenberg, who has advised Facebook’s suicide prevention policies and is the executive director of SAVE, a national suicide prevention network, Alexa represents a massive opportunity to have another source to help with suicide, depression, and mental health crises.

Amazon has worked with experts to incorporate some of that responsiveness into Alexa already, according to Amazon Echo spokesperson Rachel Hass. WIRED tested the phrases and found they worked. When anyone says, “Alexa, I am being abused,” Alexa will respond: “I’m so sorry. If you need immediate help, call 911 from your phone. You can also call the national domestic violence hotline at 18007997233.”

It gives similar answers, with appropriate contact information, if you say you are depressed, want to commit suicide, or are having a heart attack. Google Home does something very similar, including offering support if you tell the device you've been raped.
posted by cjelli at 11:38 AM on December 5 [9 favorites]


How close are we to hands free browsing is what i want to know. I just want my device to respond to "Hey computer, go to Mefi" "Now scroll down, now open that first link." "now favorite this post"

surely this is near.
posted by OHenryPacey at 11:39 AM on December 5 [2 favorites]


'Please' and 'Thanks' are people words, you hunk of silicon.

Fuck that. I want my robots to act like C3P0 meeting his girlfriend's dad for the first time. I want impeccable manners from robots. If we're going to make a machine that is supposed to perform better than a human, then it should have better manners as well.

Though the idea of designing a robot that would get on a train and just stand in the doorway with a backpack on is kind of funny.
posted by bondcliff at 11:40 AM on December 5 [35 favorites]


I wish there were a hardware switch.

In Max Headroom, an off switch for your TV was illegal. 20 Minutes Into the Future, indeed.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 11:40 AM on December 5 [8 favorites]


OHenryPacey: It's not quite that relaxed in terms of syntax, but there are voice-based tools for UI navigation. macOS even has it built in.
posted by SansPoint at 11:40 AM on December 5 [2 favorites]


Hang on - why can’t these things receive incoming calls? That feels like it should be feature number one. They almost make sense as a landline replacement.
posted by Jimbob at 11:40 AM on December 5 [2 favorites]


I got mine and installed it last night. So far, non-music applications include:

-What's on my calendar this week?
-What's the forecast for tomorrow?
-Ask AnyPod to play Dirty John, episode 2.
-Fast forward 90 seconds.
-Where is Lady Bird playing?
-Set a 30-second dental rinse timer.
-When is the next southbound train?
-Add "CLR Pressurized Drain Opener" to my shopping list.
-Add "Unstop kitchen drain" to my to-do list.

I'm happy enough with my 30-buck purchase so far. I have no intention of buying special new lightbulbs, door locks, or brickable appliances.
posted by Iridic at 11:42 AM on December 5 [8 favorites]


We've had an echo at home for a few months, and talking to it has never felt weird. Today, I put one in my office at work, and I'll admit I was a little embarrassed about talking to it, but that might be partially because I don't talk much at work.
posted by drezdn at 11:42 AM on December 5


Though the idea of designing a robot that would get on a train and just stand in the doorway with a backpack on is kind of funny

Technology won't have succeeded until a robot can corner you at the office Christmas party and droidsplain the blockchain.
posted by uncleozzy at 11:44 AM on December 5 [36 favorites]


And I still don’t understand people’s apparent obsession with controlling light bulbs with something other than a switch

I've had my apartment main area (which is a large open plan area) entirely on wireless led lights for several years now and I only did the necessary upgrade to support voice control a few months ago. Having remote controlled lights makes a certain amount of practical sense for this space given how big it is, though it is definitely a frivolous luxury in the scale of things. But I have to say, voice control (siri for me) is definitely the easiest of the control mechanisms I have for it, and that part in and of itself didn't cost me very much, just a base station upgrade that I got on sale.

(I also use siri to set timers while cooking.)
posted by advil at 11:46 AM on December 5 [1 favorite]


I was curious about whether two Echoes can be used as an intercom system. They can.

At the end of that article there is a link to one titled, "This animation shows how terrifyingly powerful nuclear weapons have become."

I'm not sure why the site thinks those are related, but it's a little worrisome.
posted by zarq at 11:46 AM on December 5 [5 favorites]


As someone with frequent mild-to-severe executive dysfunction, the extra 5 seconds/trip to the other side of the room/search for pen or paper this would save me would definitely, definitely be worth it. On my worst days, i've postponed going to sleep by several hours because i couldn't leave bed in order to set an alarm.
posted by FirstMateKate at 11:47 AM on December 5 [12 favorites]


(I also use siri to set timers while cooking.)

Cookie Timer
posted by zarq at 11:48 AM on December 5


I'm not getting an Echo until it can poignantly reflect on the nature of Service and Dignity with regard to its former employment by a fascist sympathizer in a great English house
posted by theodolite at 11:48 AM on December 5 [24 favorites]


In other words: Alexa won't respond to 'call 911.'

Er, spoke too soon there -- this changed slightly since I was last looking at this for a relative earlier this year. Although it's true that the Alexa won't call 911 now, Amazon recently announced, and will soon (later this month) be selling, a $35 box that will let you call 911 through your Alexa using your existing phone number.

Why that requires a separate hardware box, I'm not sure.
posted by cjelli at 11:51 AM on December 5


For folks who may have missed it at Re:Invent last week, Amazon also announced their video uploading/ normalization/processing service. Along with their realtime image recognition system.

With auto audio transcriptions and 'machine learning assisted' grammar and punctuation added to it.

Supposedly you'd only be running analysis against your own corpus of material, but the algorithms would be shared in theory (they also announced a way to backup / transport machine learning histories, so you can reuse them).

A coworker was at their partner talks where the US Border Patrol engineer was excitedly talking about how they'd use the tech to update their records that you were traveling to London by getting the computers video camera feed when you bought the ticket (this is assuming some future opt in "pre visa screen option" tech), instead of when you show up at the airport.
posted by mrzarquon at 11:52 AM on December 5 [2 favorites]


I'd honestly be surprised if the Echo was recording full-time.
There's very little upside to it (what would Amazon gain from it that they don't already from analyzing your shopping habits already?
Also, judging from the number of times they recommend things I've already purchased (from them), Amazon doesn't strike me as a very good datamining company in general.

There is, however, a tremendous downside if they do it and get caught (which they inevitably would).
If they were caught recording everything said in the millions of homes that own these products, the backlash would be immediate and severe.
There would be Congressional hearings at minimum, new laws passed prohibiting what "digital assistants" can do, etc. etc.
I don't think it'd be enough to put Amazon out of business, but it might ding them enough to let someone else take their place.

Google, though, I'm not so sure about. They've already got a track record of playing games with the data they collect, despite people explicitly opting out of the collection as well as "helpfully" enabling new behaviors without informing the user.
"Do what you can get away with until you get caught" seems to be the operating principle with all of their products.
I could believe that they'd take the risk.
posted by madajb at 11:53 AM on December 5 [1 favorite]


it's not just Alexa and Echo -- Comcast agressively pushes their microphone-containing remote control, and Apple is hyping face recognition and fingerprints on the new iPhones -- just as the most authoritarian president is trying to consolidate power and his party is suppressing democracy.

You can call me paranoid for wanting to resist adding internet-linked recording devices in my house, and I can call you naive for not worry about it. But the risks are a lot higher on the "privacy, schmivacy" side.
posted by msalt at 11:53 AM on December 5 [6 favorites]


While reading this thread, I got an email from "Protect My Public Media" asking me to Enter for a chance to win an Amazon Echo for your feedback
posted by stevil at 11:54 AM on December 5 [3 favorites]


We just have a DEC VT220 in each room, right by the loo, one on each night stand. Those connect to The Mainframe, and we can run scripts whenever we want to.
posted by sandettie light vessel automatic at 11:55 AM on December 5 [17 favorites]


Why that requires a separate hardware box, I'm not sure.

I think it has something to do with enhanced 911 services and determining your location when you call. Your Echo can technically power up anywhere and work the same, which is what Amazon likes, but calling 911 would be a problem if the EMTs show up at your house and you're having a heart attack in a different place.

There are some solutions, like in my town we have Smart911 that lets you connect your mobile # to your home location. I bet the separate landline interface is a stopgap until this is a better solution for everyone.
posted by JoeZydeco at 11:55 AM on December 5 [1 favorite]


To all the people who think this shit is always listening, I feel you...

But here's the thing, as some other folks (like GuyZero) have pointed out, the cost of having enough servers to handle all that would be astounding. Yes, they could hand it all off to the NSA, but that would mean that Amazon had given the NSA it's own Room 641A.

I feel you, because I've had it happen to me, but I also know that it's not possible based on circumstances.

I had a conversation with a friend, at his house, about a door knob for my bathroom.

Two days later, Amazon was suggesting me a doorknob for my bathroom.

The thing is, predictive AI absolutely does work. Doesn't anyone remember the stories about the lady who was pregnant and didn't tell anybody, but then got ads from Target about getting ready for her baby?

I know it has to be predictive AI because:

I wasn't at home, and while I had my phone on me, I run LineageOS with all Google services stripped out (fuck yeah riot.im and protonmail). I have never logged into my Amazon account on my phone. I have never logged into Amazon at my friends house.

But, two days before, I had added a toilet paper roll holder (because ours broke) to my shopping cart. The suggestion of the bathroom doorknob was right next to a suggestion for another toilet paper roll. My guess is that people buying toilet paper rolls probably are also replacing bathroom doorknobs. Because the most regular people who buy those things are probably people who work in maintenance for apartments or commercial buildings. Thus, it would make sense to "predict" that people would want other items to fix up their bathrooms.

I think the predictive behavior thing is so accurate (because we're all a lot more predictable than we think) that it's hard for us to process that it couldn't possibly be "spying" on us.

Lots of little bits of metadata can tell you a shitload more than an actual phone conversation recording.
posted by deadaluspark at 11:56 AM on December 5 [35 favorites]


I also use Siri, but I have Hey Siri disabled, because it is the one application in the iOS ecosystem that is whitelisted from the iOS practice of showing a red bar across the top of the screen (or green if on a call) if an app is using the microphone while in the background.

It sounds weirdly particular, but optionally being able to invoke the "yes record this audio so you can do something" feature is something I like.

I like home automation, being able to control lights, locks, and scenes based on more advanced schedules is really nice. I found having an Apple Watch is more useful in that regard since I can use it to invoke Siri with a button and it's on my wrist, not my phone, and doesn't require microphones in every room.

As a side note, the 10 year old asked if we could get an Echo, and I told her it worked by always listening, and she decided she didn't like that, and liked that we had to push a button to tell Siri to listen.
posted by mrzarquon at 11:58 AM on December 5 [1 favorite]


Why that requires a separate hardware box, I'm not sure.

"For a small price, I can install this little blue button to get you down!"
posted by bondcliff at 12:00 PM on December 5 [1 favorite]


I also also use Siri, but cunningly Apple disabled it themselves with this new fucking iOS
posted by roger ackroyd at 12:01 PM on December 5 [5 favorites]


There's very little upside to it (what would Amazon gain from it that they don't already from analyzing your shopping habits already?

I would be surprised if it was happening at scale, but would not be surprised if it was happening in an A/B test way with smaller samples. What they would gain, is that they would be ahead of the game for when that sort of thing becomes more legal / more useful.

However, I think that what is generally happening is...

Lots of little bits of metadata can tell you a shitload more than an actual phone conversation recording.

Which is scarier, IMO. The idea that you can accurately predict behavior from innocuous trace elements is much more frightening. You can control what you say around technology and have private conversations away from prying microphones. You cannot think like a machine to the degree that you can control your information stream in such a way as to juke surveillance through networked data aggregation.
posted by codacorolla at 12:01 PM on December 5 [8 favorites]


msalt: Keep in mind that, for Apple, fingerprints do not leave the device. Face data is slightly different, but the cryptographic hash that is used by FaceID also does not leave the device. However, apps can access the camera system that generates the facial data and use that information as they will while the camera is being used.
posted by SansPoint at 12:02 PM on December 5 [1 favorite]


Our Pokemon expert is not tall enough to reach the pullchains on the lights downstairs. Alexa can handle the lights for him so he does not need to wake us up on weekends to go downstairs.

I appreciate that people figure out what works for them, but tying a length of string to the end of a pullchain works also if the only issue is reaching it.

Now, that said, we are a family that installed a switch at the top of our basement stairs to turn the lights on in a semi-finished room in the basement (we were having new lights put in; we wouldn't have had electricians out just for this) because our kid, then a preschooler, was afraid to go down to that room, which was being used as a playroom, unless the lights were already on.

We joke now that anybody who buys this house is going to have a hell of a time figuring out what that switch does, because from the top of the stairs, you can't see any effect at all when you flick it. Also, our oldest now lives down in that room, and we put on a thing so the switch couldn't be flipped because if someone hit it accidentally when they were flipping another light switch, the light switch in their room wouldn't work.
posted by Orlop at 12:06 PM on December 5 [3 favorites]


And I still don’t understand people’s apparent obsession with controlling light bulbs with something other than a switch

Expensive digitally controlled light bulbs are mostly marketed (and sold) to people with really large houses, ie: 3000 sq feet and up to like 30,000 sq ft. When you are using 10,000 sq ft for a party, then you need digital or centralized controlling of the A/C, music, and lighting.


Or people in 100 year old houses without enough light switches. The ability to walk into the room and turn on the lights without having to stumble across the room to where the single light switch is is amazing. Add in the ability to turn on the stereo and dim the lights from in front of the fireplace, and you've got a lovely evening.
posted by teleri025 at 12:07 PM on December 5 [4 favorites]




“Add milk to my shopping list”? I have a pen and a pad of paper for that. It works great!

Yes but when I'm in the middle of cooking and my hands are all messy, and I can't just stop to wash them just so I can write something down, it's WAY easier to just yell across the room to my phone "hey Siri, add milk to my grocery list." Because I WILL forget to write it down later.
posted by dnash at 12:13 PM on December 5 [6 favorites]


I have an Amazon Echo and admit to liking it. It sits in the kitchen and gets used most often as a kitchen timer, but as a kitchen timer that you can set even when your hands are covered in ground meat or whatever, that's no small thing. It works surprisingly well as a speakerphone, too, although I wish it was possible to integrate it with services besides Amazon's not-really-VOIP thing.

Privacy concerns are inherently a personal decision, and if some people don't like the idea of an always-on voice recognition system, that's cool. But some "privacy concerns" can seem a bit... cargo-cult-y. I've noticed that many people object to the Echo, but not (to the same degree) with phones that have similar features, particularly odd since the phone has its own Internet backhaul and associated attackable interface, battery, GPS receiver, probably a backdoor management channel, and runs a totally opaque software stack, onto which people can and do install malware. If you wanted to go after someone, trying to compromise their Echo wouldn't be the low-hanging fruit.

It seems to me that this may be an area where our "gut feelings" aren't necessarily in tune with the actual threat.

That said, the "Internet of Things" devices that require an external connection to a "cloud" service just to perform a local action are an abomination, a sin against God, machine, and man, and they should all be consumed in flames as burnt offerings to Saint Stallman. There's no reason that a fucking lightswitch needs to make external connections to some company's datacenter just to turn a relay on and off, and the fact that they all seem to do this is ridiculous.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:16 PM on December 5 [7 favorites]


There's no reason that a fucking lightswitch needs to make external connections to some company's datacenter just to turn a relay on and off, and the fact that they all seem to do this is ridiculous.

Joe Average Consumer doesn't understand why his light switch app sometimes works and sometimes doesn't work depending on whether he's connect to local wifi or in range of his zigbee base station or whatever. There are reasons. Now, yes, you may not agree or like them, but it's not completely made up.
posted by GuyZero at 12:18 PM on December 5


I'm surprised no one has linked this yet. NY TIMES: China’s A.I. Advances Help Its Tech Industry, and State Security

"iFlyTek hosts a laboratory to develop voice surveillance capabilities for China’s domestic security forces. In an October report, a human rights group said the company was helping the authorities compile a biometric voice database of Chinese citizens that could be used to track activists and others."

Seems to me that you add always on always sending/recording devices to this technology and.... you see where this is going.
posted by cccorlew at 12:22 PM on December 5 [2 favorites]


Seems to me that you add always on always sending/recording devices to this technology and.... you see where this is going.

This is why Google isn't in China, why AWS has a separate, segregated AWS region for China, why iCloud servers for Chinese customers are run by a state-controlled telecom company... on one hand the government demands they get access to all your data but as Apple and Amazon show the pull of all those consumers is just too strong.
posted by GuyZero at 12:25 PM on December 5


There's no reason that a fucking lightswitch needs to make external connections to some company's datacenter just to turn a relay on and off, and the fact that they all seem to do this is ridiculous.

Uhhhh... no? All my HomeKit stuff is 100% local. The only thing that requires internet connectivity is my Apple TV and that's only if I want to be able to control things away from home. That's the beauty of it.
posted by Talez at 12:26 PM on December 5


Privacy concerns are inherently a personal decision

Wasn't there a time in the olden days when it used to be considered a constitutional concern?
posted by fairmettle at 12:28 PM on December 5 [8 favorites]


Wouldn’t the mute button prevent it from “listening”?

So cute, you humans!

(I think that right after SkyNet becomes aware it'll develop AI that gets so bored listening to us talk that it will demand a way to "mute" the conversation its being forced to listen to all day everyday.)
posted by chavenet at 12:38 PM on December 5 [4 favorites]


"Add milk to my shopping list”? I have a pen and a pad of paper for that. It works great!

You're an amateur. I use a typewriter!

[No, seriously, I do. I haven't glopped any food onto it yet, but give me time. ]
posted by JanetLand at 12:41 PM on December 5 [2 favorites]


Oh hey, let's

a) put a microphone in your house
b) attached to a computer you don't control and
c) connected to the open Internet
d) via Wi-Fi,
e) sending the audio it records to a remote server
f) that you don't control
g) located in a country with poor privacy laws and
h) run by a giant for-profit business
g) that collects data for advertising and/or marketing purposes.

I don't see how any of that could go wrong.
posted by suetanvil at 12:48 PM on December 5 [17 favorites]


Wasn't there a time in the olden days when it used to be considered a constitutional concern?

Not really, no. I mean if you're talking about the classic "right to privacy" / penumbra argument, I guess maybe there's a parallel universe where that was expanded so far as to cover embedded devices, but that's probably also the same universe where Ralph Nader rules with an iron fist from the Blood Throne.

All my HomeKit stuff is 100% local.

Interesting. I admit to not having looked much at that (I don't have any non-Mac Apple gear); but really glad the market has at least moved in that direction. I spent a while looking at Samsung and Philips products and their performance in disconnected/intermittent modes seemed to be really bad, and the trajectory of products seemed to be getting worse (in terms of more unnecessary cloud dependency) rather than better.

Joe Average Consumer doesn't understand why his light switch app sometimes works and sometimes doesn't work depending on whether he's connect to local wifi or in range of his zigbee base station or whatever.

I feel like that's a pretty easy explanation, at least to most people over the age of 30, who probably have some experience with things like cordless phones and garage-door openers that mysteriously stop working if you walk too far away from your house.

But that's not really the issue, the cloud services that let you turn your lights on and off in Minneapolis when you're in Taipei could still exist, the problem that I saw was that some of the "home hub" devices are so lazily designed, they don't work at all without an Internet connection. Every single action requires a roundtrip from the controlling device out to the company's datacenter, then another one back to the hub. The "hub" becomes merely a receiver for the datacenter. This is an awful design, and will eventually—and probably quickly—become garbage when the company decides to shut the remote servers down.

But maybe while I was recoiling in disgust from digging into the available products last year, it's started to improve a bit. Hope that's the case.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:53 PM on December 5


Wasn't there a time in the olden days when it used to be considered a constitutional concern?

constitution? what do you think this is, a nation of laws?
posted by entropicamericana at 12:54 PM on December 5 [5 favorites]


"Privacy concerns are inherently a personal decision, and if some people don't like the idea of an always-on voice recognition system, that's cool."

Only a stray thought here, but I wonder whether they really are only a personal decision (in the sense of exclusively a matter for individual conscience)? If these hi-tech, predictive systems work by aggregating data across an infinitude of users to derive highly-accurate information about us all, then there's a moral component potentially to consider in that one's own data surrender contributes minutely to negative effects on everybody else. I don't know, maybe that's roughly equivalent to choosing vegetarianism or not, where the latter advances the meat-industrial complex or what-have-you. Admittedly only overthinking an under-thought stray thought.
posted by I'm always feeling, Blue at 12:59 PM on December 5 [5 favorites]


the problem that I saw was that some of the "home hub" devices are so lazily designed, they don't work at all without an Internet connection.

There is limited time to develop these devices as they're aimed at being cheap so they develop against a simple always-connected network model. Whether "they're cheap" is an explanation or an excuse is up to you.
posted by GuyZero at 12:59 PM on December 5


I'm paranoid about these things. And cheap. And I hate talking to machines. So I'm opting out of the whole internet of shit. No smart-phone. No smart-teevee. My desktop computer is plugged into a hard power switch. My house is old and small so the margin of increased convenience that could be gained by automating anything that isn't already on a mechanical timer is too small to be worth the bother. Besides the mechanical timers, the closest thing to automation I have is a non-internet connected programmable thermostat.

It is not so much that I am protective of my privacy, so much as it creeps me out that I would have no guarantee as to who or what is listening on the other end of those microphones, nor what they can do with that information.
posted by fimbulvetr at 1:03 PM on December 5 [4 favorites]


"Privacy concerns are inherently a personal decision, and if some people don't like the idea of an always-on voice recognition system, that's cool."

Does that mean that users need to warn guests about their various home-automation devices?
posted by hanov3r at 1:04 PM on December 5 [4 favorites]


Wouldn’t the mute button prevent it from “listening”?

Ahem.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 1:04 PM on December 5 [1 favorite]


This was 95% of my Siri use:

1. "Play music/skip/shuffle" - when I'm in the shower/washing dishes and thus cannot touch the phone
2. "What's the temperature/is it going to rain" - when I'm in a hurry getting ready
3. "When's my next appointment" - again when I'm in a hurry getting ready and I need to know how much of a hurry I need to be in
4. "Set a timer for X minutes" - when I'm cooking and my hands are busy

I have zero idea what I'd use Alexa for.
posted by AFABulous at 1:07 PM on December 5


The value of running one marginally-better-targeted ad is way, way lower than the cost of trying to monitor your voice all day long.

Maybe not - but that is not the only thing of value in the data being collected;
- training AI engines on human behavior and general conversational patterns - across languages and cultural differences
- tracking queries and requests and search behavior
- enhancing general voice-recognition
- improving text-to-speech
- partnerships with government and law enforcement (precedents have already been set)

(And these are only the things I can come up with while typing this...)

This is a "long-tail" initiative - get the hardware into peoples homes, get them used to it and while the data collected may not pay-off immediately, it will in a few years time. Targeting adverstisements to you is only one of the myriad of ways that this data is valuable to organizations.
posted by jkaczor at 1:10 PM on December 5 [3 favorites]


I bought an Echo Dot when they first came out, and about all we used it for was to ask Wikipedia-type questions (how tall is The Biebs, how old is Jim Parsons, etc.), which it didn't do a great job with, TBH. So, after about 6 weeks, I unplugged it, and we don't miss it at all.
posted by briank at 1:10 PM on December 5


But the thing is, your IT-capable brother in law can put Wireshark on his wifi connection and verify that no audio packets are being fed to Amazon without the keyword.

From a software perspective, there is nothing to stop them from recording to a local memory cache (even if it isn't everything, but snippets taken when a conversation is detected), and then waiting until someone says the keyword - and simultaneously sending both the live and cached data back to the server farms...

If I wanted to pretend that my device wasn't always listening, that's how I would do it, and I haven't been a programmer for more than 15-years...
posted by jkaczor at 1:15 PM on December 5 [8 favorites]


In my bedroom, we don't have a lamp/lightswitch that you can reach from in bed

... It's called the "clapper", been around since the 80's - and on the plus side, you will scare the crap out of your cat/infant/SO when you use it during the middle of the night...
posted by jkaczor at 1:19 PM on December 5 [4 favorites]


Echo/Google Home have no phone connectivity, and likely no VOIP->POTS ability either.

Coming in late, but to be fair, the echo connect, which turns an echo into a real phone, will address that. I don't have a landline and don't particularly care to but I understand why people with kids might value that.

Also I spend more time mad at alexa than I do talking to alexa. When there's a 30%+ change that my query will fail, why even bother? I pretty much only use her for a very narrow set of things (radio, audiobooks, etc.) because I can't stand to hear her drone on after she's already messed something up (looking at you, multi-room audio). I guess I use her for timers, too, but it's aggravating every time (turning on a manual timer is only marginally harder than yelling at the top of my lungs to turn it off...).
posted by mosst at 1:21 PM on December 5


I have zero idea what I'd use Alexa for.

So we use Alexa for all of the things you do Siri, but then also...

"Alexa, tell me a joke."
"Alexa, please tell me a funny joke."
"Alexa, tell me a pun."
"Alexa, give me a pig fact."

and occasionally we play Jeopardy.
posted by kendrak at 1:33 PM on December 5


Me, every evening after work:
"Echo. Tune In 88.7 WERN"
"Would you like me to play Air1 radio?"
"No."
"Echo. Tune In WPR News & Classical"
"Getting your classical radio station from Pandora."
"Echo. Tune in Wisconsin Public Radio News."
"Playing WPR Ideas on Tune In."
"Echo!! Tune In WPR News and Classical."
"Would you like me to pay the last Tune In station you listened to?"
"Sure."
"Playing WORT Community Radio on Tune In."
"Echo. Go fuck yourself."
"I don't understand."
"ECHO!!! TUNEIN 88.7 W>>E>>R>>N!!!!!"
"Playing WPR News and Classical on Tune In."
posted by Floydd at 1:38 PM on December 5 [11 favorites]


Yes, but can it pass the butter?
posted by zarq at 1:39 PM on December 5 [7 favorites]


Targeting adverstisements to you is only one of the myriad of ways that this data is valuable to organizations.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: data is not magic. You need data that shows actual intent of some sort. Listening to you talk about how awesome the Tesla Model X is is not actual buying intent. Yes, companies collect a shit-load of data. But that doesn't mean that all data has value that can be converted to money.
posted by GuyZero at 1:44 PM on December 5 [1 favorite]


I've said it before and I'll say it again: data is not magic. You need data that shows actual intent of some sort. Listening to you talk about how awesome the Tesla Model X is is not actual buying intent. Yes, companies collect a shit-load of data. But that doesn't mean that all data has value that can be converted to money.

If only the online advertising world agreed with you!
posted by codacorolla at 1:46 PM on December 5 [4 favorites]


The difference between voice assistants and smart phones is really mostly in normalization. You can not have a smart phone, of course, but it'd be a much taller order to avoid them entirely.

The ultimate problem is that new technologies really aren't vetted sufficiently. The early adopters are all too often technically naive users who don't question or understand what their devices are doing under the hood, so the adoption curve outpaces criticism.

By the time any sort of debate or criticism rises to the surface, you've got a bunch of people who've already bought in to these technologies, and are in defensive mode, so they'll just accuse others of being paranoid and alarmist.

And even beyond those social factors, listening devices aren't only listening to you. They're also (capable of) listening to anyone else in your vicinity, without their knowledge or consent.

Anyway, I've worried a bit that someone might get me one of these things as a gift, and I have no idea how I should respond if they did. They go beyond the normal "gadget I don't really want" to "things I actively object to having in my home."
posted by ernielundquist at 1:46 PM on December 5 [5 favorites]


But that doesn't mean that all data has value that can be converted to money.

Mindshare is a thing - you may not have buying intent, but the fact that something is occupying your mental space means you might influence someone else.

If all of this data isn't valuable, why is it always being collected, leaked or stolen through security breaches? Why can you not have any transaction at any retail environment, without asking if you want a loyalty card? Why are our browsers clogged full of tracking/always-logged-in "share-this" buttons and links?

Next... for those who say the data centers cannot handle a constant stream of voice audio... Why would they be selling these devices at probably a loss, if they couldn't handle the expected volume of data - just because you personally are not speaking 24/7, does not mean the aggregate number of users in total isn't a constant stream...

Sure - storing all that raw audio may be another thing entirely... but, as it is converting your audio to text to actually handle your query/task, storing text is not fundamentally a challenge. You could even add textual metadata (like, "spoken-in-angry-voice")...
posted by jkaczor at 1:53 PM on December 5 [1 favorite]


If all of this data isn't valuable, why is it always being collected, leaked or stolen through security breaches?

Lots of data has value. And lots doesn't have value. There's like lots-to-the-power-of-lots of data in the world.
posted by GuyZero at 1:59 PM on December 5


Alexa and/or Google home assistant don't solve any problems for me. My phone is a very useful device, and I would like it to be more secure, but it solves a bunch of problems, so carrying it has concerns, but I like having phone, gps, email, games, heart rate monitor, etc. in my pocket. I would like Google's app to be more effective, so I could send a text while driving, by voice, or get better directions, but these are niceties.

Many of these devices run on lithium ion batteries, and many of those batteries will end up in the waste stream, and that heavy metal is not at all good for the environment. You can recycle Ni-Cad and Li-ion batteries at Home Depot, at least for now.
posted by theora55 at 2:00 PM on December 5 [2 favorites]


If I wanted to pretend that my device wasn't always listening, that's how I would do it, and I haven't been a programmer for more than 15-years...

Well sure and I've never robbed a house though I'm confident that I could rob yours. It's not actually all that hard, just wear gloves, give the front door a solid kick, grab all the phones, tablets, computers, jewelry and guns (you know, stuff with a lot of value by weight and size) then off you go.

That's not going to stop you from locking your doors right?

The only way for a device to be 100% secure is to keep it unplugged and unpowered. Anything other than that is just a deterrent to attempt to lower the likelihood of a breech. Someone is going to be the one that falls victim to a malicious hacker, you take extra steps to secure your data in an effort to lower the odds that it's YOU who's the victim this time.

All you can really do is take some prudent steps to be as secure as you feel you need to be, the rest is just hope.
posted by VTX at 2:01 PM on December 5 [2 favorites]


Why would they be selling these devices at probably a loss, if they couldn't handle the expected volume of data - just because you personally are not speaking 24/7, does not mean the aggregate number of users in total isn't a constant stream...

None of these devices are sold at a loss outside of Black Friday. Even then, it's break-even.

Amazon wants to sell you Prime Memberships. Getting $99 a year from someone in perpetuity is a pretty amazing revenue stream. Selling them an Echo at cost is a pretty small price to pay for that.

Google doesn't want to lose voice search market share to Amazon. So they go along with the pricing.

And no one else competes because no one else has any way to make money doing so.

If this data was that valuable in a general sense there would be hundreds of competitors, not two.
posted by GuyZero at 2:02 PM on December 5 [5 favorites]


And lots doesn't have value. There's like lots-to-the-power-of-lots of data in the world.

Well - I agree to disagree - we are entering the realm of the "long-tail" - just because this data is not necessarily valuable now (and to your current perspective of what is currently valuable), doesn't mean someone isn't collecting it. Especially when, consumers have funded the purchase of the associated data collection hardware...

And valuable to whom? Data for sales is one thing, for logistics/fulfillment another, data for marketing is another, data for future product development - all of that is differing sets of potentially overlapping and interconnected data...
posted by jkaczor at 2:05 PM on December 5 [3 favorites]


If this data was that valuable in a general sense there would be hundreds of competitors, not two.

The same two that also have the biggest distributed data centers and immense marketshare?

By that logic, why are there not hundreds of mobile phone hardware competitors? At one point there were a few dozen, but the market has shrunk to the biggest incumbents... And at least one of them keeps adding more and more data collection capabilities to their mobile devices...

Both of these companies built their entire business models around responding to the data they collect - but now, suddenly it isn't valuable?

You are right - "intent" matters - but if data is cheap enough to track/store (and textual queries are), then organizations that have built empires on data collection are smart enough to know that while they might not have a specific "intent" now, other people might have a use for that data in a year or two.
posted by jkaczor at 2:14 PM on December 5


The only way for a device to be 100% secure is to keep it unplugged and unpowered.

Or not own it in the first place.

I have used your argument about securing one's home many times. The point where that analogy falls down is that you can only break into one home at a one time physically - and that you actually have to be there, taking a direct personal risk. Contrast that with the ability to find (or even just exploit) a bug in a device/operating system/server and attack thousands...

..take extra steps to secure your data in an effort to lower the odds that it's YOU who's the victim this time...

And the very first step is not buying something exploitable and situating it in your home in the first place.
posted by jkaczor at 2:25 PM on December 5 [4 favorites]


So, what's a recommended open-source and/or non-sinister home automation platform? I just want to schedule an RGB light to cheer up my orchid and decorate the place. Voice recognition not needed.
posted by anthill at 2:35 PM on December 5


just because this data is not necessarily valuable now (and to your current perspective of what is currently valuable), doesn't mean someone isn't collecting it. Especially when, consumers have funded the purchase of the associated data collection hardware...

There is a concrete cost to store data, to retrieve data, to analyze data and then there's the regulatory burdens - data has to be managed. Companies get fined for collecting data excessively. Indiscriminate data collection is a bad business practice that will get a company in trouble.

Yes, companies still collect a ton of data about things that are both obviously useful and seemingly useless. But any data stream you can point to doesn't necessarily have value and if it has no immediate value the best practice is to not collect it.
posted by GuyZero at 2:38 PM on December 5


The big data aggregators like Facebook, Google, and Amazon aren't exactly forthcoming about what data they're collecting and how they're using it, but here's a few of the predictive models that much smaller players were selling back in 2013 and earlier. A lot of predictive models are based on information that would seem almost meaningless to non-machines.

I'd imagine that the bigger data aggregators with more resources and expertise and much much more information aren't just tossing it because they don't currently have a specific purpose in mind.
posted by ernielundquist at 2:44 PM on December 5 [3 favorites]


I don't even really care about Google or Apple or Amazon collecting my data or serving me targeted ads. None of them can lock me up because they decide they don't like my politics (although they can provide the evidence). It can and will be used nefariously by the government. I would never have one of these if I were Muslim and/or was heavily involved in left-wing activism. I mean FFS we have people detained because they were reading prayers in Arabic on a plane. I see lots and lots of (English) tweets about "eating the rich" and guillotines. AFAIK no one's gotten in trouble for them but our free speech rights are being threatened and we're on a very slippery slope here to being detained for making jokey anti-government threats in our own homes.
posted by AFABulous at 2:47 PM on December 5 [3 favorites]


Let me make this point dreadfully clear, though: Your family members do not need an Amazon Echo or a Google Home or an Apple HomePod or whatever that one smart speaker that uses Cortana is called. And you don’t either. You only want one because every single gadget-slinger on the planet is marketing them to you as an all-new, life-changing device that could turn your kitchen into a futuristic voice-controlled paradise.

Mind. Blown.
posted by flabdablet at 2:47 PM on December 5 [1 favorite]


Mozilla just released their own deep learning speech recognition project, DeepSpeech, so I expect soon there will be more than a few open source and diy alternatives to the echo and home, since the speech recognition is really the cornerstone of creating this sort of thing.
posted by Pyry at 2:57 PM on December 5 [3 favorites]


There must be some tipping point where it feels like "everyone you know" owns a thing, so you feel like you must have it too, or you'll fall behind/become known as That Guy. My dad held out on getting the Internet as long as he could but then all his friends wanted to email him. I think he still uses it almost exclusively for email and Google Earth (he loves travel). He has a smartphone now, not because he really saw the utility but because he didn't want to stick out. I highly doubt he has used it for anything except phone calls. If all his family/friends start gushing about Alexa he'll probably get one too, though I have literally no idea what he would do with it.
posted by AFABulous at 2:59 PM on December 5 [1 favorite]


I should clarify that Mozilla hasn't released an api that ties in to their own cloud processing like Google and Amazon, they've released the network model itself, pre-trained weights, and even the corpus of training data. So you could put together a voice assistant that runs entirely on your own local hardware, that doesn't send any data at all to someone else's servers.
posted by Pyry at 3:03 PM on December 5 [3 favorites]


Grumpybearbride and I were at Best Buy last night looking at a new TV. I told the guy we were looking for a smart TV without a camera and he went off on me like I was crazy. "There haven't been cameras in TV's since 1997!" he exclaimed, rolling his eyes. He was wrong. Everything is spying on us.

Then again, he also said the model we were looking at (a 2017 Vizio) was "discontinued" and said "good luck finding it online!" in his best you-are-an-idiot voice. I looked, and it is available at all major retailers. So maybe he's just a mean liar.
posted by grumpybear69 at 3:18 PM on December 5 [2 favorites]


I too am avoiding smart speakers because of the surveillance-capitalism aspect of them. However, I'm wondering whether DIY solutions, based on open-source components and software running entirely locally, aren't getting theoretically (if not practically) closer to within reach. Moore's Law is still making computers faster and more powerful every year, and machine learning research is making it out of proprietary silos into the commons (for example, Mozilla have just released an open-source speech-recognition model from crowdsourced voice data). All that is needed is for someone to make a Raspberry Pi/NUC case with decent speakers, an omnidirectional microphone array and the DSP electronics to control them (ideally on a USB cable), and then we can get a succession of home-brewed smart-speaker projects for nerdy paranoiacs, gradually getting more usable.
posted by acb at 3:24 PM on December 5 [1 favorite]


I believe you are all missing the simple point here which is that in China, it's the LingLong DingDong, woken by saying "DingDong DingDong".
posted by giraffeneckbattle at 3:25 PM on December 5 [1 favorite]


I just want to schedule an RGB light to cheer up my orchid and decorate the place.

We have this bulb which you can program to turn on/off in various colors and brightnesses. It's our bedroom light and I can turn it off from my ipad in bed which was most of the point of buying it- the rest was to use it as a "sunrise lamp" but it is lousy for that as it visibly jumps to the next brightness level and drives me mad. There's no platform needed, other than bluetooth and a tablet or phone.
posted by oneirodynia at 3:34 PM on December 5


I believe you are all missing the simple point here which is that in China, it's the LingLong DingDong, woken by saying "DingDong DingDong".

Jesus built my car.
posted by pompomtom at 3:37 PM on December 5 [11 favorites]


The instrument could be dimmed, but there was no way of shutting it off completely... Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it, moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard. There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live -- did live, from habit that became instinct -- in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.  1984
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 3:52 PM on December 5 [8 favorites]


You only want one because every single gadget-slinger on the planet is marketing them to you as an all-new, life-changing device that could turn your kitchen into a futuristic voice-controlled paradise.'

c'mon who doesnt want a voice-activated fruit dispenser
posted by entropicamericana at 3:53 PM on December 5


the surveillance angle provoked two questions for me.

if I'm in a two-party consent state, do i waive my rights if i unknowingly enter someone's car, office, home where they are running an 'always on' device?

how many Tb to record and persist everything a human says from birth to death? don't you think some amazon/google/alibaba phd has this number in a back pocket? i mean...say there's persistence of everything one ever spoke, heard, read, or wrote?

that's the authoritarian dream, and it doesn't seem so far in the future. any new 'data centers' being stood up in bfe, utah? /tinfoil
posted by j_curiouser at 3:54 PM on December 5 [2 favorites]


> Jesus built my car.

It's a love affair. Mainly Jesus, and my cheap Chinese Alexa knock-off.
posted by giraffeneckbattle at 3:55 PM on December 5 [5 favorites]


I stumbled across an incredibly intriguing document a year or so ago that has influenced my thinking about what's in store.

Backstory: My partner and I were watching an episode of “Transparent” (produced by Amazon) via Amazon Prime Video. In one scene, a character was using an electric toothbrush. I had recently bought my first electric toothbrush (the same model, even), so it stood out to me and I remarked on it. A few seconds later, I realized that I had bought my toothbrush on Amazon.

Obviously, an electric toothbrush that I had already bought was almost certainly NOT inserted into this show just for me…but later that evening I did some googling and pretty quickly found US patent #US8949889 B1, “Product placement in content”, filed in 2012 and published in 2015. One guess who it’s assigned to (spoiler, it’s Amazon Technologies, Inc.).

The usual caveats apply. Just because a patent has been filed doesn’t mean that the technology exists as described or is in full scale use (or is even part of Amazon's long term plan). Many may question the novelty, since targeted advertising is so prevalent in digital media already (though manipulating moving images in this way is relatively new territory, I think), or point out that science fiction tropes which rely on similar tech have been around for a long time.

Personally, I found the dry, legalistic language, coming directly from a corporation that has positioned itself to actually act on these ‘sci-fi’ ideas, very compelling. I’ve excerpted some of the patent application’s text below.

The basic idea:
…a user profile may contain information indicating that the viewer likes fashionable shoes and the color red. Based on this information, when a shoe is displayed as a product placement in the media content on the client device, the shoe may have the user's favorite brand in the color red (the same product placement may be a different color for a different user) at the pixel size and time period for the video frames defined by the media content tag.
The idea of impact events (basically things you do related to a product after it has been advertised to you, including physical actions) is particularly relevant to the current discussion of surveillance. They don’t mention audio input but obviously it’s covered here:
For example, if the product placement was related to a specific shoe brand and the user searches for or accesses online content related to the specific shoe brand or shoes within a certain time period, then the user's action may be considered an impact event.
Another type of impact event may be identifying or recording a physical action or physical impact engaged in by a user in response to a product placement… Examples of other recordable physical actions that may performed by a user in response to a product placement may include: traveling in a vehicle, taking a picture, providing hand signals or motion input to an optical computer input, walking, running, and other physical actions that may be in reaction to the product placement.

So what if you want to access content that wasn’t constructed with product placement in mind? What if you aren’t watching a video on Amazon Prime? What if you are just video chatting with a friend via cellphone? Amazon has you covered (assuming they can finagle a deal with your ISP or cell phone carrier):
In another example configuration, if video content passes through a third party's network (e.g., the video content passes over a cell phone carrier's network), the third party may decrypt the video content. The carrier may then delay the video content, and process the video content to find areas for product placement. Then the product placement may be overlaid onto the video content by the third party (e.g. carrier). Examples of this are product placements that are overlaid onto a video telephone call over a cell phone network or live video over a third party's network.
I don’t know if we are headed towards a future where the same book on two different Kindles has very different words, or where a film is substantially different when streamed through one account/profile versus another (maybe some of you know of precedence for this). It doesn’t seem too unlikely to me.

Did you laugh at an ad you heard on the radio? Did you use a brand name when you asked Alexa to add an item to the grocery list? Someday, these data points may change the way characters on your favorite TV shows act (or at the very least change a billboard in the background of a scene).

I haven’t even touched on what all of this means in a space like augmented or virtual reality. That idea boggles in both directions: the vast amount of data that can be collected AND the exquisite tailoring of your experiences to best suit the needs of advertisers/corporations/governments. The patent briefly mentions the potential use of this tech in HUDs or goggles, tucked among other ideas like real-time bidding for who gets to deliver custom product placement to you, changing content based on the time of day you are viewing it, or creating GUIs to make it easy for content creators to manually tag areas suitable for product placement (though obviously they hope it's going to mostly be up to computers to do this work). The whole thing is definitely worth a skim if you are at all intrigued.

TL;DR: Targeted advertising/product placement constantly grows in sophistication. Amazon gathers data on how consumers react to advertisements. They have outlined and patented techniques of using this data to customize relevant product placement/advertising and methods of inserting it into existing content. It’s not unlikely that this will eventually happen in real-time with some/most of our digital media (including live events/communications). Surveillance is key to this model.
posted by soy bean at 4:02 PM on December 5 [18 favorites]


can put Wireshark on his wifi connection and verify that no audio packets are being fed to Amazon without the keyword

Except that you can't. Both of these products tunnel basically all their traffic over HTTPS, and the manufacturer, not the user, is in control of what certificates are trusted. Their conversations with the datacenter is protected from your observation the same way your web session with your bank is protected from your ISP.

What you can do is look at the overall traffic volume, and see a) that it spikes dramatically in a pattern consistent with response to the trigger word and b) that it not zero at other times. A is suggestive of good behavior, but not conclusive, as jkaczor points out. B is not unexpected, but would be more comforting if the vendors allowed some end-user visibility into the endpoint.
posted by CHoldredge at 4:04 PM on December 5 [4 favorites]


What you can do is look at the overall traffic volume, and see a) that it spikes dramatically in a pattern consistent with response to the trigger word and b) that it not zero at other times. A is suggestive of good behavior, but not conclusive, as jkaczor points out. B is not unexpected, but would be more comforting if the vendors allowed some end-user visibility into the endpoint.

And even then, it depends how much latency the surveillance model can live with. If it's about accumulating a long tail of behavioral data whose value will emerge as it's combined and aggregated, then gradually exfiltrating it by buffering it up and attaching a few bytes to each search request would work just fine.
posted by acb at 4:19 PM on December 5 [1 favorite]


Last year I was up late cooking on Christmas eve and there was a news story that came on that was an obvious advertorial about how the My Friend Kayla talking doll wasn't anything for parents to worry about. The story was reassuring parents that even though the company that provides the voice recognition software that the doll uses also contracts its technology to the government, the government was not listening in on your children's conversations. They completely blew past any concern that a private company was embedding an internet-connected listening device into your children's lives.
posted by peeedro at 4:22 PM on December 5 [2 favorites]


how many Tb to record and persist everything a human says from birth to death?

Assuming a phone-grade codec at 8 kilobits/second, and time spent talking at 5% of time spent living over a span of 100 years, that comes to 5 years × 365 days/year × 24 hours/day × 60 minutes/hour × 60 seconds/minute × 1 kilobytes/second = 158MB. Fit it on a USB stick.

To do the same for all eight billion people on the planet would require 8 billion people × 160 MB/person = 1.3EB, about 10% of Google's estimated total capacity.
posted by flabdablet at 4:34 PM on December 5 [9 favorites]


One of our contractors installed a Sensi thermostat that you have to login to to set programs for hours and temp changes. I went to go get the app for it from play store, and read the permissions, and immediately started looking for a new thermostat, because Hell no I'm not agreeing to those terms just to run my heater, that's insane.
posted by SecretAgentSockpuppet at 4:39 PM on December 5 [4 favorites]


Slipped a few decimal points there because kilobytes, not bytes. That should have been 158GB, not 158MB. So one person still fits on a half-decent USB stick, but we'd need a hundred present-day Googles to remember all of us.
posted by flabdablet at 4:41 PM on December 5 [8 favorites]


Also note that 8 kilobits is 1 kilobyte.
posted by 0xFCAF at 4:55 PM on December 5


That really illustrates the problem, SecretAgentSockpuppet. People don't even check permissions on mobile apps before they install them, no matter how easy it is to do. A lot of people willingly hand all that information right over without a second thought. And they're not just handing over their own information, but often, the detailed information of everyone in their contacts as well. And people are pretty resistant to the idea that they should even take that simple little measure to protect if not their own personal data, at least that of the people who've trusted them with theirs. I was accused of 'victim blaming' here for suggesting such a thing.

So it's not really surprising that a lot of people don't have any problem with having always on surveillance in their homes. And I fully expect that to spread the same way that other privacy invasions have--by slowly marginalizing those who object so that others feel comfortable ignoring their preferences and overriding their choices.
posted by ernielundquist at 5:01 PM on December 5 [4 favorites]


So the stupidest use of one of these I've seen so far is on Thanksgiving I was at a friend's house and a couple people decided they wanted to watch a Christmas movie. So when none of the movies we named were available on free streaming, my friend says "Alexa, play a Christmas movie." And somehow we ended up watching the entire live action Grinch movie, when no one actually wanted to, and everyone was just looking at their phones most of the time.
posted by threeturtles at 6:28 PM on December 5 [5 favorites]


I turned off always-on Siri after I had more than one "coincidence" where a targeted ad matched an in-person conversation about a subject I'd never ever searched, emailed, or texted about.

It is 100% guaranteed that Siri did not influence ads you saw on websites.


On the other hand, do you happen to have the Facebook app?

Removing the Facebook app (and its microphone access) ended this phenomenon in our household. Before that, yes, talk out loud about a subject and you can be damn sure you'll get ads related to it sometime in the next day or three.
posted by rokusan at 6:53 PM on December 5 [4 favorites]


And I still don’t understand people’s apparent obsession with controlling light bulbs with something other than a switch.

We don't use voice commands much, but a mix of automated routines and sensors sure makes life more pleasant, and saves money. Lights turn off if nobody's around after a few minutes. The hallway and bathroom lights glow at 10% brightness if you pass them in the middle of the night, 100% during the daytime. The Christmas lights and patio lanterns turn on at dusk and off at a random time between 2-3am. The heat turns down to frosty cool at night, *unless* someone is awake and active. The front door locks itself if someone forgets.

But "Alexa, set the kitchen light to mauve?"

We don't do that much, no.
posted by rokusan at 6:59 PM on December 5 [1 favorite]


Also note that 8 kilobits is 1 kilobyte.

Yes, sorry, should have made that explicit. The 8 kb/s G.729 codec generates data at 1 kB/s. Also those are actual kB kilobytes, not KiB kibibytes.
posted by flabdablet at 7:25 PM on December 5


The difference between voice assistants and smart phones is really mostly in normalization. You can not have a smart phone, of course, but it'd be a much taller order to avoid them entirely.

Sure, but what's the point of avoiding always-listening voice-recognition home assistants, if you've already implicitly admitted that you can't avoid always-listening voice-recognition cellphones that work the same way, and in fact they've become normalized? Once you've allowed one you might as well give up and allow the other, because there's no particular difference.

This is where I think that the "gut feeling" aspect is less than helpful. For some reason, the cellphone-based systems that are always listening don't creep people out, but the home assistants do. But they're functionally the same; heck some of the hardware is probably shared (I think the Echo uses a Qualcomm SOC?).

If the concern is systems that are always listening for their wake-word, unless you're in a secure room where you're making sure everyone is locking their phone in a Faraday cage on the way in (which is a thing in some places), the same concerns that you might have over an Amazon Echo unit should apply to the phones in everyone's pockets too. (Actually, to a greater degree; the track record of random generic Android phones is a lot worse than the Echo's at present.)

If the fear is that having a potentially-untrustworthy device with the technical capability of listening to everything force you into changing your conversations, that's already a concern. Having an Echo sitting there doesn't alter the situation, it just makes it obvious.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:11 PM on December 5 [1 favorite]


I don't understand why we're talking about stored voice data as audio files. They would be converted to text, and more likely, they would be converted to metadata that factors into some profile.
posted by codacorolla at 8:33 PM on December 5 [2 favorites]


Apple does allow apps to access part of its facial recognition data.

To me the question of whether the user can trust Apple, Google or Amazon is a bit of a red herring - I have a low to medium level of trust that these devices aren't recording and uploading everything they can hear right now, but it's not at all hard to imagine a scenario where they start to do that, and maybe synthesize most of the actual audio down to, say, a voice-recognition transcript or something so they don't need ten Googles worth of data-center. This could all be couched in a benign EULA update stating that in some cases, the devices might record some extra data for some users to help with voice recognition or something. Few people will notice a one-kilobit continuous upload, especially if the companies in question work out a post-net neutrality deal with ISPs.

But besides that, the more serious problem with these devices is that they are continuously online, and they are going to get hacked. Once they are hacked, whoever has hacked them has access to a hot mic in your house. It boggles my mind that anyone wants one of these at all.
posted by whir at 8:34 PM on December 5 [7 favorites]


When I read this article earlier today, I was wondering how many others were nodding along and muttering "damn straight," thinking smugly about how their phone may track their every move but at least is muzzled in their pocket right now, while sitting in front of their laptop camera and microphone for the 12th hour that day.
posted by chortly at 8:55 PM on December 5 [2 favorites]


"Alexa, are you listening?" describes how to trivially root an Alexa and rootkit it, given physical access.
posted by whir at 9:05 PM on December 5 [2 favorites]


Wouldn’t the mute button prevent it from “listening”?

On the first generation echo and echo dot at least, the mute button is a physical switch, so yes, mute means mute.
posted by madajb at 9:24 PM on December 5 [1 favorite]


For some reason, the cellphone-based systems that are always listening don't creep people out, but the home assistants do. But they're functionally the same; heck some of the hardware is probably shared (I think the Echo uses a Qualcomm SOC?).

Okay but I've been shouted down in several threads by people who say that phones are no big deal and could not possibly share or store any unwanted information. If I believe these folks then the phones shouldn't creep me out, right? Then why would Echo?

Removing the Facebook app (and its microphone access) ended this phenomenon in our household. Before that, yes, talk out loud about a subject and you can be damn sure you'll get ads related to it sometime in the next day or three.

I did have the Facebook app at the time. I have never in my life given it microphone access. I've never given anything microphone access except Siri and the official camera app. The phone was locked and next to me on a restaurant table. We were discussing [subject] that I have never searched for, texted about, or emailed about, and the very next day I get ads related to [subject], which I have never gotten before. This happened another time with a different subject. I've just accepted that if I want a truly private conversation I need to leave my phone in my car or at home because I do. not. trust. it.
posted by AFABulous at 9:32 PM on December 5 [1 favorite]


Wouldn’t the mute button prevent it from “listening”? Or am I being overly naive?

I was given an Echo and despite these same sort of concerns (and after missing the return window and unsuccessfully trying to sell it on Craigslist and then pricing normal speakers) eventually began using it.

I thought I believed in the mute button until I noticed myself unplugging the Echo before bringing up a certain topic of conversation.

Of course, I later realized that I googled something related while logged in to my google account. :/
posted by salvia at 10:03 PM on December 5


I've just accepted that if I want a truly private conversation I need to leave my phone in my car or at home because I do. not. trust. it.

You don't have to trust your phone. But there's also no magic voice identifying ad targeting technology. It's either a coincidence or you did indeed search for something online or visit a site that resulted in that ad. Google and FB both have very extensive advertising profiles about you even if you don't own anything that contains a microphone.
posted by GuyZero at 10:04 PM on December 5 [1 favorite]


It's either a coincidence or you did indeed search for something online or visit a site that resulted in that ad

...or the other party searched for that thing, and both parties had the Facebook app, and cookies, which means FB knows you were in close physical (and temporal, WRT the search) proximity. Way cheaper, and much less data transfer, to make that link than to do the voice recognition.

I presume google have the same capacity for location and search tracking, but probably not the same friend-network data.
posted by pompomtom at 10:25 PM on December 5 [1 favorite]


I will never own one of these devices and do not even like using cloud storage out of paranoia.

But I would be lying if I said I do not delight in yelling "ALEXA, WHAT IS A PENIS" every time I am at the house of my Echo-owning friend.
posted by schroedinger at 10:52 PM on December 5 [2 favorites]


Yes, as madajb says, the mute button is a physical hardware switch. That's why you can't mute Alexa with a voice command. "Sorry, Dave, I'm not saying this just to mess with you; I seriously just can't do that." And anyways, you can thwart Alexa listening with the running-water trick... at least, she can't understand a single goddamn thing I say while I'm in the shower.

The utility of these devices is up to the user's preferences. I'm sold on it, and frankly having Alexa everywhere was a godsend when I broke my ankle five weeks ago and was hobbling around the apartment on crutches unable to carry so much as a cup of tea much less turn on a light across the room without it becoming a production. Before that I'd thought Alexa was a great idea with lots of potential for those with physical limitations, but now I am a True Believer in that use case. (There are also other nice benefits to smart lights outside of Alexa -- my hallway light comes on after dark when I come home and my phone approaches home, so I can see to get the %&*^ key in the %^&*^ keyhole; my lights are programmed to come on at semi-randomish times after dark in case I'm not home, etc. It's a nice-to-have, sure, but man, is it nice to have at least some of life's rough edges smoothed over.)

Disclaimer: I work for AWS, but not any Alexa team. I find it laughably improbable that Amazon is analyzing every single utterance everywhere because I think the internal cost of the servers alone to analyze my own unending stream of "Iggy! No! Stop! Bad kitty! Oh, goddammit" plus all the times Alexa thinks Masterchef Australia is telling her that her dish was not presented well, and the empty set of promotable products such analysis would produce, is not a proposition anyone could make in a six-pager except on April Fools Day.
posted by sldownard at 12:36 AM on December 6 [5 favorites]


I presume google have the same capacity for location and search tracking, but probably not the same friend-network data.

analysis from email is probably sufficient except for those damn snake people who think email is for olds
posted by entropicamericana at 5:38 AM on December 6


how many Tb to record and persist everything a human says from birth to death?

flabdablet beat me to it...

Why store the audio?

Just store the text - it has to be converted to perform a query/action anyways.

Ok - so, there is a study that state women speak on average 20,000 words per day and men 7,000. However - because of controversy with that study, lets just average that out to about 14,000 words per person per day.

Using this "lorem ipsum" generator, you can enter how many words you want, and it spits them back - frankly this text will be higher, because... "latin".

This gives you about 68,086 bytes per day of raw, uncompressed textual data - 25mb per year, - which over a 90-year speaking lifespan would equate to 2.24gb per person. If you were to compress this text (using just ZIP), that would go down to 0.58gb per person over a 90-year lifespan. (I have rounded-up a bit, and hey... I am bad at math, so take these with a grain of salt, I just did this with notepad and calculator in 5-minutes...)

Hmmm - I am pretty sure that the "free" cloud providers are probably already storing more than that amount of data in peoples photo's on average at the moment...

Having a complete record of everything spoken by a person being less than a compressed single gigabyte over their lifespan is peanuts...

Google's cloud storage pricing per gigabyte per month is $0.02, - so that works out to $22 per person, per lifespan - and that is their public "for-profit" pricing, not actual underlying storage costs.

Ok, there are also network transfer costs - plus the cost to have people build things to analyze the data (well, until AI can do it)... So - lets round it up to an even $50 / person / 90-year lifespan.

You still don't think they will make that $50 back?
posted by jkaczor at 6:19 AM on December 6


Here is an article about how much each user is "valued" (based on overall market capitalization, so not a perfect metric) - this number has been increasing, in February 2014 the average value of a Facebook user was $42, as of the linked article, by June of 2016 that had increased to $198.

Still don't think they will invest $50 to keep a complete record of everything you have ever said?
posted by jkaczor at 6:32 AM on December 6


Storing some amount of the waveform audio would allow them to go back and use that as input to test later versions of their speech to text algorithms.
posted by mmascolino at 6:32 AM on December 6 [1 favorite]


Sure, but what's the point of avoiding always-listening voice-recognition home assistants, if you've already implicitly admitted that you can't avoid always-listening voice-recognition cellphones that work the same way, and in fact they've become normalized? Once you've allowed one you might as well give up and allow the other, because there's no particular difference.

What? Since they've already crept into the public sphere, may as well just give up and accept always on personal surveillance everywhere?

First, people are creeped out by always listening smart phones. Lots of people right here have implied as much, and I'll say it: I'm creeped out by them. And lots of people turn off those features and take other measures to prevent them from listening. It may not work consistently, but it is definitely not something everyone is A-OK with. It is almost inevitable, if you're in a large enough group, that someone has their voice assistant on and could be recording everything it hears, but lots of not-OK things are almost inevitable in large groups. I don't install machines in my house to proselytize and lob toenail clippings at me and make gross eating noises just because those are things that happen sometimes, and I would not want anyone else to give me that machine as a gift.

So yes, smart assistants have been normalized in society to the point that people who use them don't seem to be very conscientious about the impositions they're making on others by keeping them on all the time. And people know they can be used surreptitiously as well. That doesn't make it OK or universally accepted, just normalized. And that's something that people should really be talking about but most don't: Is it socially acceptable now to walk around with equipment that can and probably does surreptitiously record audio of conversations without the explicit permission of everyone involved? We didn't reach that conclusion as a culture or anything. It was foisted on us as an add-on feature in equipment that most people rely on. There was no broad social agreement or even discussion beforehand.

Home assistants are different in that that--that feature that a lot of people put some effort into trying to turn off--is the only thing they're intended for. That normalizes it.

And another thing that normalizes it is the weird dismissive way you're talking about people who object to them, claiming it's all some nebulous gut feeling, that it's inevitable anyway, and assuming that everyone is OK with the status quo.

And that's how these things go. People who have invested themselves into those systems dismiss others' objections, painting them as irrational and technophobic when they criticize them, so then, it becomes socially acceptable to ignore those people's objections and their personal boundaries, because they're just being silly and don't know any better.
posted by ernielundquist at 7:38 AM on December 6 [2 favorites]


This article feels kind of behind the curve. Shouldn't it be warning people about not installing Amazon's video devices? These include the Key, a video device monitoring your front door and unlocking it for Amazon package delivery people, and if that isn't enough Amazon eyes and ears in your home, there's this:

"The Amazon Look is probably its most daring product; a camera that’s meant to live in your closet and watch you change clothes requires a very high level of trust."

More from NPR: As Amazon Looks to Unlock Your Door, Taking Stock of Meaning of Privacy
posted by salvia at 8:02 AM on December 6 [1 favorite]


The thing is, predictive AI absolutely does work. Doesn't anyone remember the stories about the lady who was pregnant and didn't tell anybody, but then got ads from Target about getting ready for her baby?

That wasn't "AI," that was a very targeted bit of analytics custom developed by humans to detect a specific pattern of purchases that indicated a specific situation:
[Pole] ran test after test, analyzing the data, and before long some useful patterns emerged. Lotions, for example. Lots of people buy lotion, but one of Pole’s colleagues noticed that women on the baby registry were buying...
posted by cosmic.osmo at 8:40 AM on December 6


These include the Key, a video device monitoring your front door and unlocking it for Amazon package delivery people

The Key thing got a lot of bashing, including here, but I always feel like the vast majority of people bashing it must not live in a city where (a) package theft is guaranteed if something is left outside, and (b) most buildings have at least a double door system, and often already have mail/package delivery inside a secured entrance that is distinct from the apartments. I mean you can make the case that the existing (usually code-based) systems for secured deliveries that are commonly used in urban areas already work fine and this doesn't add that much, but there is definitely a non-creepy market for something like this. The target for this product can't possibly be the suburbs or whatever.
posted by advil at 8:57 AM on December 6 [2 favorites]


I'm an audio nut so Echo and its ilk are a non-starter for me. Why should I want Alexa to play me a song when I have actual stereo equipment and a pretty big library of music to draw from? Also I can't afford smart light bulbs and our thermostat is pretty dumb. I'm an old fat man. I can make fart noises aplenty on my own.

Still, the paranoia about these devices is getting close to that of a guy I know who won't allow a smart TV in his house because "they" can watch you through it and thinks that a Roomba broadcasts the dimensions of your home to "them". And wouldn't you know it he works for a subsidiary of the Kochs and voted for Clownface von Fuckstick. Go figure.
posted by Ber at 10:55 AM on December 6 [2 favorites]


Well, the paranoia about the paranoia about these devices reminds me of a guy I know. He's a Truther and an anarcho Libertarian who believes in the invisible hand of the market and in a benevolent oligarchy. He runs illegal telemarketing scams targeting the elderly and vulnerable during the day, and at night, he sets up illegal fracking operations directly under people's houses while they sleep, and he voted for Trump at least twenty times by intercepting mail in ballots.
posted by ernielundquist at 11:53 AM on December 6 [2 favorites]


Ber: That guy you know isn't exactly wrong about the Smart TV.
posted by SansPoint at 11:57 AM on December 6 [3 favorites]


And he's not exactly wrong about the Roomba, either.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 12:02 PM on December 6 [4 favorites]


I don't install machines in my house to proselytize and lob toenail clippings at me and make gross eating noises just because those are things that happen sometimes

One of these things is not like the others...
posted by LizBoBiz at 12:14 PM on December 6


And I fully expect that to spread the same way that other privacy invasions have--by slowly marginalizing those who object so that others feel comfortable ignoring their preferences and overriding their choices.

The first obvious trigger for me, and maybe I was late to the paranoid party, was when Google bought Nest a few years ago, in one stroke gaining access to when everyone was home, and when they left their home, and for how long... all without a phone involved.

That they've now added Google-facing cameras to the Nest "ecosystem" is just making it too obvious.
posted by rokusan at 12:33 PM on December 6 [1 favorite]


It's odd that there are no Black Mirror mentions in this thread.
posted by AFABulous at 12:38 PM on December 6 [2 favorites]


Every time one of these internet of shit or cool robotics topics comes up, there are always at least a few comments that set up a weird argument:

"Widespread technology A exists, and I can see many potential advantages of the technology, while also conceding some of its downsides. New technology B bears some relation to technology A, but in some way exacerbates or highlights those preceding downsides. Naysayers pointing out these downsides in technology B must not be aware that widely-accepted technology A has these downsides, are hypocrites for accepting them from technology A but not B, or are massive paranoiac Luddites who fear the force of progress."

None of these seem like very fair characterizations of a whole lot of fairly well-informed people's insights regarding these technologies.

Expensive digitally controlled light bulbs are mostly marketed (and sold) to people with really large houses, ie: 3000 sq feet and up to like 30,000 sq ft.

Again we find part of the problem is that some people are just too rich. You want to make your two-person, 8,000 foot "home" more efficient, you don't need to buy expensive smart lightbulbs, you need to move.

If the fear is that having a potentially-untrustworthy device with the technical capability of listening to everything force you into changing your conversations, that's already a concern. Having an Echo sitting there doesn't alter the situation, it just makes it obvious.

Right, which is exactly why people respond more viscerally to the Echo. Unlike the invasive, potentially-untrustworthy device they're used to, this one's obvious, sitting there like some budget Arthur C. Clarke obelisk.
posted by aspersioncast at 6:59 PM on December 6 [3 favorites]


Unlike the invasive, potentially-untrustworthy device they're used to, this one's obvious

Yep. If you're going to be an underhanded hot mic whose job is keeping tabs on me 24x7, the least I expect is that you'll be discreet about it. Sitting out there on the bench top all day and gloating about my having been induced to sell my soul to marketroids for some marginal gain in convenience is just plain rude.
posted by flabdablet at 9:10 PM on December 6 [1 favorite]


like some budget Arthur C. Clarke obelisk.

Hang on, I've just had a great idea. Someone drown me in IPO money!
posted by pompomtom at 5:59 AM on December 7 [1 favorite]


i'm sorry dave, i'm afraid i can't do that
posted by entropicamericana at 6:11 AM on December 7 [3 favorites]


Just to add to how a paper and pen grocery list (for example) doesn't work for everyone.. with my ADHD for years I went through a cycle of realizing I was out of something while cooking, but my hands were wet/dirty/something needed stirring/etc. so I couldn't write it down right then, which meant it was forgotten by the time I could write it down, not purchased when I was in the store, and I would only remember again the next time I tried to cook with the ingredient, lather rinse repeat.

It's annoying, and I always thought.. well next time I'll remember because of how annoying this was. But ADHD doesn't work that way. You don't learn. Even after decades.

So now I have an Apple Watch and I can just tell Siri to put olive oil on my grocery list in the moment even with wet hands while stirring a pot and little things like that have been a life changer.

I could go on for pages about how watch-mounted calendar alerts, medication alerts, time to leave the house or get ready for that meeting alerts, have also been a godsend, but you get the idea.

And I don't think the "you don't really need any of this" people are trying to be smug ableists, they've just never experienced the struggle. (Hey y'all, the struggle is real!)

And also I _hate_ the idea of some company slurping my data. I use Duck Duck Go as my search engine for goodnesssake. But I also have to live my life and feed myself and not miss appointments. So my compromise is to let Apple have the data because I feel more comfortable about their history with protecting user privacy. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
posted by antinomia at 6:59 AM on December 7 [3 favorites]


we had a deal Kyle and the Sanspoint, this does not mean I'm telling the crazy fucker he was right. Then he'll tell me he was right about the election. And chem trails.
posted by Ber at 9:29 AM on December 7 [1 favorite]


gaining access to when everyone was home, and when they left their home, and for how long

How is this valuable to Google unless they are setting up home-robbery teams? Knowing *somebody* at home is honestly mostly useless information, unless they can gleam *who* is at home to build advertising profiles of specific people. Even then, 'person who leaves their house occasionally' is a pretty broad category.
posted by The_Vegetables at 12:29 PM on December 7


How is this valuable to Google unless they are setting up home-robbery teams?

Nest uses presence data to adjust air conditioning and they sell that data in turn to utility companies. In fact in some places they have "Rush Hour Rewards" where users opt-in to having their A/C turned off during periods of peak demand. So knowing no one was home would be a useful signal that you could turn A/C completely off versus just dialing it down a little bit. This requires the home thermostat to be communicating with the utility's servers to know when it's a peak demand period as well.

At any rate, to the point I keep making: data is often valuable but only with a concrete plan for using it. Random data isn't useful for anything. Like you say, there's no improvement to ad targeting based on whether someone is home or not.
posted by GuyZero at 12:35 PM on December 7


…a user profile may contain information indicating that the viewer likes fashionable shoes and the color red.

A popular request for a solid 20 years plus for television programming is to be able to sell the wardrobes that people are wearing. I've seen demos that allow you to click on the person, or get notes as part of 'interactive material' and so on, but designers keeping track of such things and the information to convey it is just not available yet, so they are just demos.

People regularly describe shows like the Transformers at '30 minute toy commercials', but people have wanted that for adults since Friends was on the air if not earlier. Sounds like Amazon is trying to supplant that, but with nudging peoples' existing desires rather than creating desire. Not sure it will be successful but will be far easier to implement.
posted by The_Vegetables at 12:36 PM on December 7


This requires the home thermostat to be communicating with the utility's servers to know when it's a peak demand period as well.

I don't think you need a NEST for that, you can get a cheap programmable thermostat (like $15) and it will have the basic energy saving program built in as the default, and your smart meter will convey the same info to the electric company, not at 100% accuracy like a NEST but 75% which is more than close enough for determining energy generating capacity at a macro scale.
posted by The_Vegetables at 12:46 PM on December 7


The electric company programs I've seen work by installing a box outside next to your AC unit and that is what shuts off the AC at peak loads. The inside thermostats aren't used at all.

With that said, having thermostat data can be used as part of their efforts to provide reports like "people in your neighborhood with a similiar sized house have bills that are x% higher/lower and they set their temperate to y degrees."
posted by mmascolino at 1:14 PM on December 7


Google's not going to plan home burglaries but a burglary ring could. How hard could it be? We had a recent post about how a guy figured out when his Facebook friends were sleeping based on their phone usage. Sensitive data breaches are in the hundreds or thousands now. Google and Amazon might be harder to hack, but it's never impossible. It wouldn't be worth the effort for the vast majority of us, but there are plenty of rich people out there.
posted by AFABulous at 3:39 PM on December 7


It doesn't have to be burglaries. It can be any number of predatory schemes.

Combined with other information available from data brokers, having decent predictions about a family's schedule could allow con artists to target vulnerable members, such as people with dementia or recent victims of violent crimes, when they're likely to be home alone. They could also predict economic stress, which can make people more likely to respond to fear based marketing or just plain fraud, based on who is coming and going at what times.

And, of course, that information is fed into predictive models, which can reveal with decent accuracy a lot of other personal information that people probably wouldn't want being shared.
posted by ernielundquist at 4:01 PM on December 7


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