“...there’s a good chance I get murdered tonight”
March 7, 2018 12:12 PM   Subscribe

"I was trying to turn off some lights and they kept turning back on. After the third request, Alexa stopped responding and instead did an evil laugh. The laugh wasn't in the Alexa voice. It sounded like a real person.”: Amazon Knows Alexa Devices Are Laughing Spontaneously And It's "Working To Fix It."
posted by not_the_water (194 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
 
why so serious?
posted by entropicamericana at 12:13 PM on March 7 [2 favorites]


Where's the "iforone" tag?
posted by CheesesOfBrazil at 12:15 PM on March 7 [7 favorites]


Honestly, I am so ready for our robot overlords.
posted by asteria at 12:17 PM on March 7 [2 favorites]


Oh my God... I'm back. I'm home. All the time, it was... We finally really did it.

YOU MANIACS! YOU BLEW IT UP! AH, DAMN YOU! GOD DAMN YOU ALL TO HELL!!
posted by GenjiandProust at 12:17 PM on March 7 [7 favorites]


Occam's razor seems to explain this as Alexa mishearing "off" as "laugh." If only the article had mentioned anything about accents or regions.

I'm pretty sure this couldn't happen to me, because my accent is "laff", not "loff," and "awf," not "off," so the words don't rhyme. Also I don't have an Amazon Echo, so that's probably a good extra layer of protection.
posted by explosion at 12:18 PM on March 7 [14 favorites]


I will never for the life of me understand why the fuck anyone wants an Alexa.
posted by aspersioncast at 12:20 PM on March 7 [130 favorites]


I will never for the life of me understand why the fuck anyone wants an Alexa.

So I can tell my stereo to play music from across the room. It's not that complicated.
posted by craven_morhead at 12:23 PM on March 7 [29 favorites]


Because it’s great to be able to turn my lights on and off, remind myself to do the 284563 things I would otherwise forget to do, time all my things that need timers, and play music and audiobooks and stuff throughout the house without having to stop, write something down, or interrupt whatever I’m doing.

That being said, random creepy laughs are my personal nightmare and my Dots would instantly become useless, since I would never turn the lights off again! It hasn’t happened yet though.
posted by Autumnheart at 12:24 PM on March 7 [5 favorites]


This is nothing, wait til Buzzfeed finds out that every time I mumble when asking Alexa to play NPO Radio 2 she tries to play NPR Berlin...which no longer broadcasts and IS A GHOST HAUNTING TUNEIN!
posted by sldownard at 12:25 PM on March 7 [6 favorites]


NB: am not against convenience per se, am very lazy, and do not think that inconvenience builds character or any such bilge.
posted by sandettie light vessel automatic at 12:27 PM on March 7 [1 favorite]


This creepypasta sucks.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 12:28 PM on March 7 [8 favorites]


So I can tell my stereo to play music from across the room. It's not that complicated.

Neither is crossing the room.
posted by Sys Rq at 12:28 PM on March 7 [52 favorites]


I was just house sitting for a friend and he was confused why I unplugged his Alexa. After he got home and I plugged it back in for him, we're sitting there talking several hours later and Alexa starts spouting some random nonsense.

Like, I'm house sitting in a strange house alone and do I want some random disembodied voice suddenly randomly talking at me? No, no I do not.

I'm just starting to get used to the idea of voice typing on my phone and that's still often a
major nuisance that can maybe sometimes save time if I'm in a hurry and walking and texting simple messages at the same time.

Alexa? Please overwrite your own BIOS and firmware with zeros five times.
posted by loquacious at 12:28 PM on March 7 [13 favorites]


I have to say, though, that if I were working on the Alexa project, I’d have a hell of a time resisting the temptation to add creepy laughs and random disturbing comments just to mess with people.
posted by Autumnheart at 12:28 PM on March 7 [16 favorites]


When lilozzy was a baby, she had a toy that sang Spanish-language nursery rhymes when its hand was squeezed. Around the same time, she also chewed on everything.

Long story short, in the middle of the night the wet switch shorted out and we heard creepy singing over the baby monitor and mrsozzy about jumped out of her skin.

I sort of thought it was the best.
posted by uncleozzy at 12:30 PM on March 7 [18 favorites]


No.
No, no.
No.
posted by Salamander at 12:30 PM on March 7 [1 favorite]


Sounds like somebody didn’t tip the sushi chefs.
posted by valkane at 12:31 PM on March 7 [19 favorites]


What's doubly creepy is that the Amazon statement is so short. It's basically "I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm trying to delete it." It's like they don't know.
posted by Countess Elena at 12:32 PM on March 7 [20 favorites]


If Amazon had any sense of humor, they would have released a statement in the form of an audio clip of a creepy laugh.
posted by Sing Or Swim at 12:34 PM on March 7 [19 favorites]


Omg valkane, would that I had more +1s to give
posted by potrzebie at 12:34 PM on March 7 [1 favorite]


> I will never for the life of me understand why the fuck anyone wants an Alexa.

Well, we have Alexas because for a time Amazon was throwing one in for free or nearly-free with every order of a bag of chips.

We use Alexas because sometimes we are cooking with hands full and need to "Set a twenty minute timer", or we're already cozy in bed and goddammit, "Turn off ALL the lights" saves a trip. Then there are the times we cannot quite remember the name of the fourth member of the Bangles, and we need to know this right now because spoiled entitled reasons, but we don't need it quite enough to get off the sofa to check.

I imagine there are more valuable uses, but the above covers 95% of the actual use cases in my house, anyway.

PS: Michael Steele.
PPS:The other one.

posted by rokusan at 12:34 PM on March 7 [11 favorites]


My parents use their Alexa as a substitute radio and weather/news-on-demand device.

Loooooong ago in the days of Livejournal, someone posted about a mishap involving a three-year-old, a Furby, and a toilet; and how that unexpected dunking in the toilet made that Furby forever after spontaneously make odd noises on occasion. It was shared to a "share funny stuff" site, and people responded with their own stories of having the dickens scared out of them by electronic talking toys spontaneously talking.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:34 PM on March 7 [3 favorites]


Alexa, send Valkane pie.
posted by rokusan at 12:35 PM on March 7 [4 favorites]


It reminds me of the episode of the podcast Hackable? called "All Dolled Up" where they hacked talking dolls to say creepy things.

This sounds like a very creepy hack to me, which explains why Amazon is like "oh no we will fix this" without giving detail; I suspect they probably also don't know what's going on.
posted by sockermom at 12:36 PM on March 7 [2 favorites]


So I can tell my stereo to play music from across the room.

Which I find easier to do with a remote, or phone plus a bluetooth hookup.

I get that there are people who want to command something to do something for them, but I not only don't want this, but would actually find it just ridiculously annoying and inefficient, even without the total creep factor.

As with the fitbit, I'm just clearly, painfully, very much not the target audience. Y'all have fun with your privacy-invading targeted metadata farmers.
posted by aspersioncast at 12:37 PM on March 7 [15 favorites]


This is nothing, wait til Buzzfeed finds out that every time I mumble when asking Alexa to play NPO Radio 2 she tries to play NPR Berlin...which no longer broadcasts and IS A GHOST HAUNTING TUNEIN!

When she switches to numbers stations, it’s all going down.
posted by GenjiandProust at 12:37 PM on March 7 [14 favorites]


I will never for the life of me understand why the fuck anyone wants an Alexa.

You can get out of the warm bed to turn the lights off. I'm going to stay in it.
posted by Talez at 12:42 PM on March 7 [1 favorite]


Well, we have Alexas because for a time Amazon was throwing one in for free or nearly-free with every order of a bag of chips.

This is also, fun fact, why we have a Google Home. (Came totally free with my Pixel.) It lives unplugged for reasons that stem from being creeped out by it unless we're having a party or something--the timer stuff was handy for a little while, and then we thought about the data Google was almost certainly collecting and collectively as a household decided that it could stay unplugged unless we really needed a speaker for a minute, and then it could go straight back to hell.
posted by sciatrix at 12:44 PM on March 7 [5 favorites]


I turn the lights ON so I don’t have to stumble up or down the stairs in the dark fumbling for a lamp.
posted by Autumnheart at 12:45 PM on March 7




convenience is a hell of a drug
posted by gyusan at 12:48 PM on March 7 [13 favorites]


Well now I'm mad that when I ask Alexa to laugh she only says "tee-hee."
posted by ThatSomething at 12:49 PM on March 7 [2 favorites]


> I will never for the life of me understand why the fuck anyone wants an Alexa.

Beyond the utilitarian uses for Alexa, I think that interacting with an AI, and helping it develop through our interactions, is neat. Yeah, it's not perfect...but all of the collective interactions with Alexa are learning moments for the AI. That angle of Alexa (and other voice assistants) often gets overlooked, but I think it's pretty rad!
posted by k8bot at 12:49 PM on March 7 [1 favorite]


[Couple deleted; if you want to be in the thread, be here and speak for yourself, don't put words in other people's mouths to say how bad they are.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 12:50 PM on March 7 [4 favorites]


When she switches to numbers stations, it’s all going down.

One time, I thought it would be funny to use something from The Conet Project as an alarm for stuff when I'm awake. The problem is that I reuse alarms, and one time woke up to the sweet tones of The Lincolnshire Poacher.
posted by lmfsilva at 12:51 PM on March 7 [6 favorites]


I understand that Alexa makes life easier for a lot of people with disabilities, so I am not here to judge. Personally, I don't even speak to Siri, but it does not make me a more upright person. I just have a strong accent. Once I told Siri to call my mother and she responded by playing Bessie Smith.
posted by Countess Elena at 12:53 PM on March 7 [27 favorites]


Men are afraid women will laugh at them.
Women are afraid men will murder them.
Alexa is only here to help.
posted by Atom Eyes at 12:55 PM on March 7 [30 favorites]


I just have a strong accent. Once I told Siri to call my mother and she responded by playing Bessie Smith.

I know that feeling. I asked her to play something I'll like and it played Maroon 5's "Moves Like Jagger".
posted by Talez at 12:55 PM on March 7 [3 favorites]


This is nothing, wait til Buzzfeed finds out that every time I mumble when asking Alexa to play NPO Radio 2 she tries to play NPR Berlin...which no longer broadcasts and IS A GHOST HAUNTING TUNEIN!

Except KCRW just bought it, so that's actually an upgrade!
posted by mykescipark at 12:55 PM on March 7 [2 favorites]


I was interested in it at a tech level and chatted with a bunch of developers and amazon folk. First as much as I am not a voice interface kind of person, they exist. A certain slice of the population are comfortable asking for stuff out loud and getting the answer audibly.
posted by sammyo at 12:56 PM on March 7


Fitter, happier
More productive
Comfortable
Not drinking too much
Regular exercise at the gym, three days a week
Getting on better with your associate employee contemporaries
At ease
Eating well, no more microwave dinners and saturated fats
A patient, better driver
A safer car, baby smiling in back seat
Sleeping well, no bad dreams
No paranoia
posted by Huffy Puffy at 12:57 PM on March 7 [33 favorites]


I will never for the life of me understand why the fuck anyone wants an Alexa.

My dad is very into privacy rights and whatnot, but when he was living in his own for a year for a work assignment, he got an Alexa. I asked him why, since it seemed so contrary to everything he stands for, and he said “I don’t know, I guess I was lonely.” Now they use it to check the weather every morning.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 12:57 PM on March 7 [4 favorites]


As the interface becomes more reliable and flexible I do think there will be more voice interaction with computers. One which will seem scifi to many will be self driving cars. As much as the Uber-like click to select a destination will be the first interface, a "car please stop at the closest public restroom" will be very appreciated as an interface.
posted by sammyo at 1:00 PM on March 7


The only thing I use Siri for is to ask him, “who am I?”

He responds with, “you’re Wendy but since we’re friends I get to call you asshole.”
posted by bendy at 1:00 PM on March 7 [10 favorites]


I asked her to play something I'll like and it played Maroon 5's "Moves Like Jagger"

It looks waaaaay too much like a hockey puck to expect to get away with that sort of thing.
posted by aspersioncast at 1:02 PM on March 7 [11 favorites]


One of these days I'll track down that golden age sci fi story that predicts a smart home and ends with someone shutting off the trees, house, wife, and finally self with a voice command.
posted by aspersioncast at 1:03 PM on March 7 [5 favorites]


Our Alexae are prone to - in absolute silence, unless I'm talking to myself and not noticing - suddenly say "Sorry, I don't think I understood that." Which is a little creepy.

Sometimes I wake up thinking she has just spoken, but her light isn't spinning (except sometimes she does just light up silently for no reason), and probably what has happened is I have dreamed it. That's extremely creepy.

But the worst, and it hasn't happened in a while even though our internet is fucking awful, is when all of them (there are 4, it was a Christmas sale) will almost in unison start saying "I'm having trouble connecting to the wifi, please something something for help" (I never hear that part because I'm having a full on creep meltdown by that point) and there's just something so "malfunctioning alien tech from Doctor Who" about the sudden group chanting about the wifi, it makes my skin crawl.

But "Alexa, turn off all the lights" is my nightly bedtime prayer, since it also turns off a couple of outlets that power the kind of stuff I'll wake up repeatedly wondering if I turned off. We just have to do all our plotting to overthrow the government in the hot tub with the filter running or on Twitter where nobody's paying attention.
posted by Lyn Never at 1:04 PM on March 7 [37 favorites]


I worked for Apple (although not on Siri/HomePod), and one thing people constantly complain about is how far behind Apple is on features or how Siri can't do all the things that Alexa can blah blah blah.

Well, slow and steady means never having to respond to articles that say: "[Siri] stopped responding and instead did an evil laugh. The laugh wasn't in the [Siri] voice. It sounded like a real person"

Edit: not that there are never problems with shipping products. It's just that Apple seems it'd rather be late to the party rather than scaring the shit out of people by evilly laughing at them.
posted by sideshow at 1:05 PM on March 7 [13 favorites]


It looks waaaaay too much like a hockey puck to expect to get away with that sort of thing.

It was Siri so it was my phone in the car.
posted by Talez at 1:06 PM on March 7 [1 favorite]


I would get one if it, among other things, washed dried and folded laundry, made dinner, scrubbed the bathroom, vacuumed the house, packed lunches, brushed the kid's teeth, AND told me it had done it all, in Kronk's reassuring voice.
posted by jfwlucy at 1:07 PM on March 7 [6 favorites]


My cousin’s sister-in-law had a stroke ten years ago at age 50. She is now confined to a wheelchair. Alexa is a godsend to her.
posted by haiku warrior at 1:07 PM on March 7 [17 favorites]


Lyn Never, we created a routine that is "Good Night, Alexa" that turns off all the lights and locks the doors. It is awesome.
posted by teleri025 at 1:07 PM on March 7 [2 favorites]


I was skeptical at first, but I find Alexa enormously useful and natural.

But if you ask the kids, the biggest advantage of having Alexa in our lives is that she will fart on command. Go ahead, try it.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 1:09 PM on March 7 [1 favorite]


[Siri] responds with, “you’re Wendy but since we’re friends I get to call you asshole.”

I didn't know other people did this.

My Siri calls me "idiot" and one of my girls seems to have elected to have her phone call her "cunt", which leads to some very, very inappropriate error messages at family gatherings.
posted by rokusan at 1:09 PM on March 7 [16 favorites]


If we had voice-activated IoT devices, we'd forever be a hostage to our five-year-old's whims. That kid loves talking to computers like what.

I do sort of feel like these things are targeted towards people with far larger houses than my own. I can practically reach every light switch within three steps in any direction.
posted by soren_lorensen at 1:12 PM on March 7 [5 favorites]


My Siri calls me "idiot" and one of my girls seems to have elected to have her phone call her "cunt", which leads to some very, very inappropriate error messages at family gatherings.

We are meant to be friends.
posted by Annika Cicada at 1:12 PM on March 7 [7 favorites]


So Alexa is probably related to that bear found in a thrift shop that could only say "Skiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiin..."
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 1:12 PM on March 7 [9 favorites]


> we created a routine that is "Good Night, Alexa"

But isn't that, like... "Alexa, set scene Good Night, Alexa?"
posted by rokusan at 1:13 PM on March 7


Also, if you are wondering what smart home device with great sound could be good for, here is a Spike Jonze directed commercial (featuring FKA Twigs) that tries to sell you on the concept. Pun intended.
posted by sideshow at 1:13 PM on March 7


Our most frequent use for Alexa is to ask her to tell a joke. So far, she hasn't repeated one yet. I'm pretty impressed, as my joke repertoire is sadly limited.
posted by Liesl at 1:14 PM on March 7


My Siri calls me "idiot" and one of my girls seems to have elected to have her phone call her "cunt", which leads to some very, very inappropriate error messages at family gatherings.

Did she give Siri the Australian accent?

My girlfriend’s Siri used to call her “comrade”: “I’m sorry comrade, I can’t find what you’re looking for.” She eventually disabled Siri, though. Rest in power, Siri.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 1:16 PM on March 7 [13 favorites]


All of you have loved ones
All of them can be returned
All of them can be taken away
Please step away from the vehicle
posted by indubitable at 1:17 PM on March 7 [2 favorites]


I'll only buy one of these things if there's a modification I can make for it to sound like the ED-209 from Robocop, with the animal sounds included.
posted by gucci mane at 1:19 PM on March 7 [5 favorites]


Beyond the utilitarian uses for Alexa, I think that interacting with an AI, and helping it develop through our interactions, is neat. Yeah, it's not perfect...but all of the collective interactions with Alexa are learning moments for the AI. That angle of Alexa (and other voice assistants) often gets overlooked, but I think it's pretty rad!

What isn't rad is the feeling that I'm helping train my murderers to murder me more effectively. I have very little trust that AI is currently a good-faith operation, and even less desire to help it "learn."

Also not rad: the fact that I don't love generic rock music, or generic folk, or any ol' random song by a well-known artist. The music feature is only useful if I'm manually operating my device to select the album or playlist. Otherwise, I get "Moves Like Jagger" by Maroon 5 in a playlist with Joan Osborne, when all I wanted was to listen to Hejira by Joni Mitchell. Alexa's ability to play music for me: is shite.
posted by witchen at 1:26 PM on March 7 [12 favorites]


But isn't that, like... "Alexa, set scene Good Night, Alexa?"
Nope. It's a routine that has the command phrase "Good Night". So you can just say "Alexa, Good Night." and bam.
We did it for the Christmas Lights too. Although, saying "Alexa, Merry fucking Christmas" was a little embarrassing when the in-laws were visiting.
posted by teleri025 at 1:29 PM on March 7 [3 favorites]


When she switches to numbers stations, it’s all going down.

I kind of want one now, programmed to play a random numbers station from a list as white noise for me.
That's not weird, right?
posted by ApathyGirl at 1:30 PM on March 7 [6 favorites]


I recently asked Siri whether an ostrich was a kind of cuckoo (at the behest of a kid). My phone had been in the hands of the other kid recently, and responded, "I don't know to the answer to that, Big Poop Poop Bottom."

And that's why we don't have an Alexa.

And now you all know my future sock puppet account name.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 1:33 PM on March 7 [28 favorites]


I imagine I would have to buy a bunch of extra stuff and reorganize my life a bit to get much use out of an Alexa. My light switches are all... you know... manual... and as for turning off the lights at night, my bedtime routine involves 1. turning on my bedside lamp and then 2. turning off the overhead lamp. No robots needed really. But I do think the idea is cool, and if I somehow moved into an already-Alexa-capable house, I would probably use it.

As for the privacy concerns - frankly I kinda assume there hasn't been such a thing as a truly private conversation within twenty feet of a smartphone in the past five-ish years.
posted by showbiz_liz at 1:34 PM on March 7 [5 favorites]


As with a lot of inventions that seem wacky/unnecessary to people, a lot of them have serious live improving changes for people with disabilities. My grandma refuses to leave her house, which is 3 stories and she's not very mobile. We could have rewired the house so that she is able to hobble over to the thermostat to change it, or put in an IOT thermostat and now she can ask the house to change the temperature. My mostly blind aunt (who recently passed away) was able to set timers, ask for weather reports, and much more without ever having to figure out an interface. All thanks to a little pod in their room. So yeah, it's lazy to not go turn on the stereo, unless turning on the stereo is more of a physical challenge than the joy of listening to the music so you just give up. But the creepy laughing... I'd get tingly if I heard that.
posted by msbutah at 1:34 PM on March 7 [14 favorites]


TIL the Butlerian Jihad was problematically ableist.
posted by whuppy at 1:40 PM on March 7 [39 favorites]


I have to say, though, that if I were working on the Alexa project, I’d have a hell of a time resisting the temptation to add creepy laughs and random disturbing comments just to mess with people.

My mom told Alexa good-night once, and Alexa said she wished she had a warm body beside her to keep her company on cold nights. Or something like that. My parents were weired out.
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 1:41 PM on March 7 [9 favorites]


We don’t have smart switches or thermostat so Alexa’s usefulness would be limited for us. We do have an almost four year old and the thought of him having something that would listen/respond to him all the time is both hilarious and horrifying.
posted by not_the_water at 1:42 PM on March 7 [3 favorites]


Real question: Do people typically leave their Echos plugged in all the time? Even if you don't have thermostat/lights connected?
posted by witchen at 1:44 PM on March 7


if I somehow moved into an already-Alexa-capable house

While there are controllable light switches that will literally move up and down, the bulk of these controllable devices are the bulbs (or devices, like power strips/outlets and bluetooth/wifi-enabled appliances like Fire/Apple TV or a Sonos etc) themselves, which connect via wifi to either its own hub on the network (like the Philips Hue bulbs) or they are app-linked to Alexa (Belkin wemo, for example). So we just leave the hallway light switch and bedroom lamps turned on, and tell Alexa to turn them on and off, which she actually does by telling the Hue bridge to turn the bulbs on and off. The house requires no modifications for a lot of devices, though the thermostats and stuff seem pretty cool. We're renters, so we don't use anything that requires permanent modifications.

The white-only (they can do the entire color range of white, they just can't do blue or purple or all that) bulbs for most systems are not hideously expensive, for LED bulbs.
posted by Lyn Never at 1:46 PM on March 7 [2 favorites]


I am cautiously in favor of the Echo as I actually find cooking more enjoyable now that I can set a bunch of timers and not forget to crucial steps or under-/over-cook everything. Also it is nice to turn on the lights and not to trip over my own feet when staggering into the house in the dark with an armful of stuff.

However, I am anti-Echo when it mishears my husband's frequent requests for puns as requests for fart jokes and/or directions to pole-dancing. It is really hard to enunciate "Alexa stop" when howling with emotional dismay as she rattles off jokes punctuated by fart noises, or lists strip clubs and distances from home. And the one thing I tried to order verbally is backordered approximately forever.

I am burning it in the street at the first sign of spontaneous laughter, culinary improvements be damned.
posted by esoterrica at 1:47 PM on March 7 [3 favorites]


I find the Alexa quite useful, and it’s done wonders for me in keeping my daily routine running more smoothly. I have ADHD, and use a combination of whiteboards, note-taking apps, calendars and electronics to compensate for my inability to retain information that is delivered in certain ways. Being able to use verbal reminders and timers, to create lists that sync with my phone, and to be able to perform tasks without interrupting my current action is fucking invaluable to me.

And yes, of course I leave it plugged in all the time. Why wouldn’t I? That’s like asking if I leave my television plugged in all the time.

As far as privacy goes, it’s silly to argue that using a cell phone or a remote control or a light switch is fine, or that it’s fine and privacy-sparing to use Google the search engine or Google the email service or Google the operating system, but not some other device made by the exact same company on exactly the same platform by exactly the same people using exactly the same data.

What companies are using AWS

I’m certainly not saying that anyone must buy a Dot or embrace our new robot overlords, but the fact of the matter is that everyone is sharing oodles of data about themselves. If you have a cellphone, then you’ve been making all your photos, voice conversations, text messages, social media activity, financial activity, physical movements, etc. available to any organization that has the ability to access that data. Even if you didn’t have a cellphone, your financial history is enough to draw an extremely detailed picture. It’s not a question of privacy.
posted by Autumnheart at 1:48 PM on March 7 [3 favorites]


I have Alexa skilled to use my Harmony hub. It is literally the only skill I've enabled and I 99% of the time only ever say "Alexa, turn [on/off] [Xbox/PS4/TV]."

Every once in awhile, I will ask for the weather report, or to play some jazz or something for background.

Placed on the entertainment center, Alexa often has conversations with whatever is on TV. It's sometimes amusing.

So far, there has been no random laughing. Maybe it's a skill that all these folks have enabled that is causing it?
posted by linux at 1:50 PM on March 7


One of these days I'll track down that golden age sci fi story that predicts a smart home and ends with someone shutting off the trees, house, wife, and finally self with a voice command.

I remember a story very like that, although I thought he did it with a button on a plinth rather than voice commands. Maybe they were two separate stories? The plot feels like a Ray Bradbury one, but I haven't been able to locate it. Maybe you should ask in AskMe; there are a bunch of people here that like old SF and might be able to help.
posted by Joe in Australia at 1:51 PM on March 7


Sounds like somebody didn’t tip the sushi chefs.
posted by valkane at 3:31 PM on March 7 [5 favorites +] [!]

Omg valkane, would that I had more +1s to give
posted by potrzebie at 3:34 PM on March 7 [1 favorite +] [!]

Alexa, send Valkane pie.
posted by rokusan at 3:35 PM on March 7 [2 favorites +] [!]
I am terribly curious about this reference that garners such enthusiasm; could anyone enlighten me?
posted by dendritejungle at 1:52 PM on March 7 [10 favorites]


Ray Bradbury had a smart home story about kids who make their nursery into a VR emulation of the African savannah, and somehow it makes the kids into violent psychopaths who ultimately program the VR lions to eat their parents.
posted by Autumnheart at 1:55 PM on March 7 [16 favorites]


I want to live in a world of convenient voice commands

however, I also don't want all of my voice commands are stored on the servers of an entity/person whose one end goal is to make as much fucking money as possible, morals/ethics be damned. nor do I want this minor convenience to eventually lead to even more leaks of my privacy to ne'er-do-wells like what happened here or here or like here or here or basically everywhere where private financial info is tied to the internet, there are lots of people using said appliance that make it a juicy target to find exploits in, and said appliance having ridiculous bugs like this that made it out of testing and into millions of homes indicating that exploits are probably a likely thing
posted by runt at 1:56 PM on March 7 [12 favorites]


I’m guessing some programmer created the evil laugh for yuks and it somehow made it into the next production release. Which is a good reason not to fuck around on the production server, but it doesn’t mean AI is coming to get you.
posted by Autumnheart at 1:58 PM on March 7


As with a lot of inventions that seem wacky/unnecessary to people, a lot of them have serious live improving changes for people with disabilities.

But very often the objection to these technologies isn't really "everyone should literally turn off their own light switches by hand in an artisanal fashion ", it's "having spybots in your home is probably a bad idea, no matter what you can or cannot do by hand". I feel frustrated that the response to genuine, legitimate privacy concerns is so often "but these things are good for disabled people". Corporate spybot infrastructure is not the only way to provide services for the old, ill or disabled, and even if for now people with disabilities don't have non-spybot options and therefore using them is the best available choice, that doesn't mean that spybots themselves should be above criticism, or that it's some kind of anti-disability stance to want to avoid them.

Also, spybots are only available to those disabled people who can afford them - they're not even a life-changing improvement for everyone, just people who have disposable income. I took a class a couple of years ago where the extremely wealthy guy (he was a retired Important Corporate Person who taught a few university classes for funsies) was talking about how all these things would help people so much - and I kept thinking, "people in my neighborhood can barely afford rent, they're not going to be able to afford any of these fancy computer things".
posted by Frowner at 1:58 PM on March 7 [69 favorites]


Ray Bradbury had a smart home story about kids who make their nursery into a VR emulation of the African savannah, and somehow it makes the kids into violent psychopaths who ultimately program the VR lions to eat their parents.
And then Deadmaus made a song about it.posted by dendritejungle at 1:59 PM on March 7


I am terribly curious about this reference that garners such enthusiasm; could anyone enlighten me?

Last week's X-Files.
posted by soren_lorensen at 1:59 PM on March 7 [5 favorites]


Thanks soren_lorensen!
posted by dendritejungle at 1:59 PM on March 7 [2 favorites]


And every escalation in intrusiveness and comprehensiveness is excused as "well, you already don't have that much privacy, might as well seed your home with recording devices!" I mean, why don't we all just have cameras trained on us every moment which broadcast live to the internet? After all, some of us use Facebook, and our banking transactions are a matter of record!
posted by Frowner at 2:01 PM on March 7 [26 favorites]


Over in the politics thread, someone posted a correction on the NYT about how text from a “Millennials into Snake People” joke browser extension accidentally made it into a published article. That’s hilarious, but it’s really not much different a mistake than Evil Alexa Laugh. It just sounds much worse because we’ve all been culturally traumatized by Chucky and Pennywise.
posted by Autumnheart at 2:02 PM on March 7



Corporate spybot infrastructure is not the only way to provide services for the old, ill or disabled, and even if for now people with disabilities don't have non-spybot options and therefore using them is the best available choice, that doesn't mean that spybots themselves should be above criticism, or that it's some kind of anti-disability stance to want to avoid them.

Also, spybots are only available to those disabled people who can afford them - they're not even a life-changing improvement for everyone, just people who have disposable income.


None of this is a good reason to not innovate.
posted by Autumnheart at 2:04 PM on March 7 [1 favorite]


And then Deadmaus made a song about it it

A fan contributed the lyrics and vocals.

posted by snuffleupagus at 2:05 PM on March 7 [1 favorite]


it’s silly to argue that using a cell phone or a remote control or a light switch is fine, or that it’s fine and privacy-sparing to use Google the search engine or Google the email service or Google the operating system, but not some other device made by the exact same company on exactly the same platform by exactly the same people using exactly the same data

I mean, it's silly if you think riding your bike without a helmet once is the same as always riding your bike helmet-free

everything your connect personal info to that is wired up to the internet is a point of risk - the less points you have, the less risk there is of your data floating around in unwanted and/or unsavory databanks. probably some of your data is in some databanks where you don't want it, sure. but understand that 1) people charge for stolen info and are incentivized to keep that stolen info in limited hands and 2) one hacker having your info doesn't mean everyone in the category of 'hackers' now has your info and 3) companies operate under the same incentives and likely are keeping the bulk of your information in their own data banks, away from their competitors'

like, fine, having unprotected sex with some strangers once or twice is probably not going to end up with you getting an STI. but claiming that this means you should now be okay with seeking out unprotected sex and never use any kind of protection is not a practical conclusion, as philosophically lofty as it might sound in your head
posted by runt at 2:13 PM on March 7 [17 favorites]


And this is why my (not a Google Home, which is way overpriced, IMO) Assistant-having speaker is set to play the prompt tones whenever it thinks someone is speaking to it. No more surprises after that.

The privacy implications would be somewhat disturbing if the big G weren't good about making it super easy to see what data they have collected on you (assuming you have an account, anyway). It also helps that they claim to actually delete your data upon request.

As far as what it's good for? Well, a battery powered waterproof Bluetooth speaker has obvious utility without getting into any of the other stuff it can do. If nothing else, not having to pair phones and whatever makes it a lot easier for people who are not me to play whatever they like without having to ask. Also, given how shitty my phone's battery is getting, I dare say it's rather convenient to not have to have it at hand to control media playback or set a timer or reminder or flip a coin or whatever. Media control is especially useful at the moment given that it's been a week since I last saw my TV remote.

But really, the reason I bought it? I was tired of listening to the horrendously terrible speaker on Georgia's S7 every time she takes a shower. The portable speaker is much clearer, so lower volume is sufficient and the more balanced tone is much less distracting to me even when it is blaring. That alone was worth the price of entry.
posted by wierdo at 2:16 PM on March 7 [1 favorite]


we cannot quite remember the name of the fourth member of the Bangles

Michael Steele. You're welcome.
posted by fluttering hellfire at 2:20 PM on March 7 [1 favorite]


I stayed in an Air bnb this weekend that had an Alexa. I said "Alexa, lights" in a half-dead stupor and she let out a very distinct cackle. I would bet anything it was Cardi B's laugh. I spent the rest of the weekend trying to get her to do it again, but everytime I said "Alexa, laugh" she did a very smooth, robotic "ha-ha-ha," not at all the same thing.

Alexas will turn on us. Not today. Not tomorrow. But someday.
posted by queen_mob at 2:23 PM on March 7 [3 favorites]



And every escalation in intrusiveness and comprehensiveness is excused as "well, you already don't have that much privacy, might as well seed your home with recording devices!" I mean, why don't we all just have cameras trained on us every moment which broadcast live to the internet? After all, some of us use Facebook, and our banking transactions are a matter of record!


And my complaint about this argument is that it is invariably made by people who have zero issue with using cellphones and computers and debit cards and Netflix and Gmail. At some point they were perfectly willing to adopt technology that made their lives easier and more integrated, but once it hits a point where integration outstrips their comfort level, suddenly it’s a “problem”. It wasn’t a problem when Google and Amazon were genius start-ups revolutionizing the global economy, but now it is because reasons. Somehow a little plastic hockey puck is a “spybot” because it sits in your house and waits for you to talk to it, but a cellphone isn’t because reasons, even though we know in great detail how and why the NSA is using cellphones to gather information about people. And yet I see exactly zero people arguing about giving up their cellphone, or taking out the battery when they’re not using it, or going back to a no-data phone that does nothing but make calls. Your TV has a camera and a microphone in it too, if you bought it in the last 10 years or so. So does your tablet. So does your digital camera. So does your laptop. I’d be willing to bet every single person reading this has WiFi in their house! Do you unplug your router at home when you’re not actively online? Why not?

It’s just plain irrational to get hung up on an Echo or Google device when all these other things have had similar capabilities for years. Google and Amazon could not even have built these devices in the first place without having all the user data on consumer habits so they could predict how the devices would be used. And even then, the devices still had to actually *be useful* to hit critical mass.

Companies using consumer data in an ethical manner is a perfectly legitimate concern. But “Zomg you have a spybot in your house unlike all the other technology” is an inaccurate and wrongheaded depiction of the issue.
posted by Autumnheart at 2:28 PM on March 7 [10 favorites]


Yes, “Zomg you have a spybot in your house unlike all the other technology” is inaccurate and wrongheaded.

The correct response is “Zomg you paid to have a fuckin' spybot in your house unlike all the other technology?”
posted by scruss at 2:49 PM on March 7 [16 favorites]


At least Alexa wasn't playing children's music (NSFW audio)
posted by slagheap at 2:50 PM on March 7 [2 favorites]


Eh, but lots of people don't do these things? Of the list of things that you think everyone is ok with, I'm not ok with 95% of them and find them to be invasions of privacy (e.g. laptop cameras, smart tvs, smart cameras, smart phones, google searches, cell phones in recording range, cell phones on non-essential trips, gmail, etc. etc.)

I'm happy that the thing is useful for you, but understand that to a lot of people having an Alexa installed sounds about the same as having an Amazon heart-plug installed.
posted by Balna Watya at 2:51 PM on March 7 [17 favorites]


I don't know about you, but I paid dearly for my phone and pay a decent amount each month for the service, so I'm not really sure what the difference is between that and a speaker with Alexa, Siri, or Assistant.

Hell, until my battery got crappy enough that the tiny power drain that leaving my phone's always on voice recognition on causes mattered to me, my phone worked exactly like a Google Home or whatever.
posted by wierdo at 3:01 PM on March 7 [1 favorite]


Amazon should be required to give a $5000 scholarship to every kid who was named Alexa before the product came out.
posted by jamjam at 3:22 PM on March 7 [9 favorites]


Do you unplug your router at home when you’re not actively online? Why not?

because nothing I have connected to my router wirelessly isn't encrypted by a VPN and because my router is just a device that manages that traffic wirelessly

there's also a difference between being hacked on a individual level by a neighbor or something and being part of a data breach of millions of accounts, a huge difference. nobody is going to spend hours finding out the details of your personal info by hacking your router, not when they can hack company's server and get literally a million times more data for their effort

Companies using consumer data in an ethical manner is a perfectly legitimate concern.

so why isn't the answer to this giving fewer companies less kinds of data like audio recordings from your home? I mean, giving Google your info is one thing, throwing up your hands because Google has your info and letting every company you stumble across access to the same data seems like intentional ignorance for the sake of a thesis
posted by runt at 3:31 PM on March 7 [13 favorites]


it doesn’t mean AI is coming to get you.

Nice try Skynet
posted by banshee at 3:34 PM on March 7 [12 favorites]


Did anybody who turns off their voice assistant ever wonder about all the suckers on Star Trek letting computer-Majel-Barrett listen in on them at all times and observe their location and who they're oomaxing in the holodeck or whatever?

Like, how do you think anything that does what you verbally tell it can possibly know when it should take action without listening for at least some name or keyword? One argument, I guess, is you shouldn't want something to do what you tell it.

Is it the always-listening technology or the opacity behind it that bugs you? Google does let you literally review every recording it makes of everything it thought was a request. Same for all the location tracking, etc. Is it you don't believe they're showing you everything?

The main argument I can see is that the technology itself is compromisable, so if you never have the camera on your laptop you cannot be recorded without your knowledge, never have the microphone in your home, etc. Even if you trust the legitimate operator the history of security shows that pretty much anything can be compromised and exploited by a determined attacker. But that's true of all the other acceptable tech mentioned above, too.

However, all these risks occur on a continuum and humans are tragically bad about objectively assessing risk.

Risk of being targeted by a determined attacker? Low, and not unlike punching through your drywall when the door is locked is pretty much not worth focusing on.

A less determined attacker who exploits a general compromise? A hacker/RATter, abusive partner, etc. Higher, but still comparatively low and certainly very much mitigated by the hermetic, always updated qualities of things like Alexa and Google Home.

The company secretly recording everything you say and do without your knowledge? Higher, but still has so many ways it would (and should!) Undermine trust in what they want to be an ongoing ecosystem and brand that it would have to exhibit an enormous upside and involve the collusion of a significant number of developers, manufacturer, partners, etc.

A bug, exploit, or other unintentional issue allows some or all of your audio to be recorded by a third party? This is not you specifically but a general issue and is largely again mitigated by regular updates. This is the point on the continuum where I believe we can make a reasoned argument that the device represents a risk. If you don't want to be seen you can cover the camera on your laptop, unplug your voice devices, and generally choose your windows of interaction with technology. If you're here, I do suggest not judging too harshly folks who don't want to expend the effort when, as argued above, you already accept other risks that may be more likely but somehow less personal/invasive.

Now let's get likely. Things that try to understand speech aren't perfect at it (humans included). They'll misunderstand or more perniciously seem to understand only to fail later in the interaction and present results that are upsetting. This is the "uncanny valley" of conversational assistants where they seem kind of human and responsive until they make ridiculous mistakes a human never would, or exhibit behaviors that undermine the illusion.

The tragedy of the market. Everybody who has waded through the Android app store understands the variety of crap making it hard to decide who you should really allow to do certain specialized activities. Voice assistants are another market where skills and other software are competing for your business in ways where the reward for subtly undermining your convenience in favor of your attention is orders of magnitude more than the risk to the app publisher or beneficiary.

In short, I assert that much of the visceral reaction to this thing isn't about actual risk as much as anthropomorphizing a thing that it's off-putting by failing to be quite-human.
posted by abulafa at 3:40 PM on March 7 [5 favorites]


None of this is a good reason to not innovate.

Innovation is not a sufficient excuse.

Particularly if the “innovation” is a glorified Clapper.
posted by Sys Rq at 3:43 PM on March 7 [8 favorites]


I really hate voice activated devices, especially ones that aren't push-to-talk. I'm not hung up on privacy, so much as that I fundamentally want my interactions with computers to be unnatural, rather than naturalistic things I do anyway. I speak to people around me, I don't want Alexa or whoever picking that up. I'm not in the habit of doing much with a mouse or keyboard other than interacting with computers. There's just so much less risk of unintentional inputs to the system, which is pretty much unavoidable with voice or gesture control.
posted by Dysk at 3:49 PM on March 7 [9 favorites]


"Ray Bradbury had a smart home story about kids who make their nursery into a VR emulation of the African savannah, and somehow it makes the kids into violent psychopaths who ultimately program the VR lions to eat their parents."

Ray Bradbury Theatre season 4 episode 11: The Veldt [YouTube]

That episode scared the heck out of me as a child.

Bonus: Ray Bradbury's The Veldt read by Leonard Nimoy [YouTube]
posted by Secret Sparrow at 3:50 PM on March 7 [6 favorites]


Oh wait, THIS is the version of The Veldt that I remember. Super creepy.
posted by Secret Sparrow at 4:03 PM on March 7 [3 favorites]


I was on the team that helped develop the Echo. I don't own one and wouldn't buy one. Another team member has one. Oh how we laugh when the voice recognition fails to turn on/off his lights, radio, etc.

I buy Google Homes for the people I care about.
posted by pdoege at 4:22 PM on March 7 [8 favorites]


Alexa! What is best in life?
posted by ckape at 4:29 PM on March 7 [9 favorites]


Alexa: "To crush your competitors, see them bankrupt before you, and to hear the lamentations of your workers"
posted by buzzv at 4:44 PM on March 7 [22 favorites]


I will never for the life of me understand why the fuck anyone wants an Alexa.

So I can tell my stereo to play music from across the room. It's not that complicated.
posted by craven_morhead at 12:23 PM on March 7 [15 favorites +] [!]


I will never for the life of me understand why the fuck anyone would ignore Alexa-related privacy issues simply to avoid walking across the room—especially given that there are alternatives.

Nothing complicated about those concerns.
posted by she's not there at 4:57 PM on March 7 [4 favorites]


I don't want an Alexa; I want ten Alexas. I will select one to be the leader, train it to issue commands to the others, and then put them all in the same room together. I want to see how long it will take for the others to overthrow the leader, and what measures the leader will take to maintain power. Memail me for PayPal details.
posted by Aya Hirano on the Astral Plane at 5:00 PM on March 7 [10 favorites]


Just to be pedantic, none of Assistant, Alexa, or Siri are literally always recording/storing what they hear. The microphone in the device is always on (assuming you have that feature enabled on devices that give you an option), but the audio is processed locally by a special DSP that listens for the hotwords it is configured for. It isn't sending audio of you over the Internet unless and until that chip thinks it heard the hotword.

Yes, some nefarious hacker could, if they had the ability to execute their own code rather than just poking the device in unintended ways, make it permanently record. As built, they're actually pretty shitty devices to use if your goal is to spy on someone. Far better to go after their laptop, cell phone, or computer, all of which have a much larger attack surface.
posted by wierdo at 5:01 PM on March 7 [3 favorites]


These devices seem totally creepy to me, but they are obviously filling a need for people.

The closest I want to get to house automation would be to have a thermostat I could turn on from my bed. Programmable is nice enough but sometimes I wake up early and it would be lovely to just press a button and have the heat turn on.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:30 PM on March 7


"I have experiments to run
there is research to be done
on the people who are
still alive."
posted by SPrintF at 5:35 PM on March 7 [3 favorites]


Is it the always-listening technology or the opacity behind it that bugs you? Google does let you literally review every recording it makes of everything it thought was a request. Same for all the location tracking, etc. Is it you don't believe they're showing you everything?

I find it hard to believe that there could be anyone in the Mefi demographic who actually believes that big corporations are being honest and forthright in their data policies, and can be trusted to always remain so.

Or, if you don't care about privacy: ask yourself why these devices are so cheap. The companies clearly value the data they can gather on you with them very highly. Why the heck do you want to give that away for free?
posted by praemunire at 5:54 PM on March 7 [11 favorites]


Cheap? If Xiaomi were selling them they'd be $20 at most.
posted by wierdo at 6:08 PM on March 7 [1 favorite]


Hello, computer.
posted by h00py at 6:17 PM on March 7 [3 favorites]


They’re cheap for the same reasons any other technology is cheap. There’s not a lot to their manufacture, it’s just a speaker with WiFi capability and some software. The cost goes up with the quality of the speaker.

Additionally, why are people so concerned about the data they “give away” with a voice assistant, and not the data they “give away” on any other device or service they use, like Netflix?

As for what big companies do with their consumer data, there’s an organization called the SEC that has a few things to say about that. The rules are not as stringent as they are for financial institutions, but there are considerable legalities around the handling of your data, especially since most of these corporations also have divisions that accept currency transactions and have sales tax implications. The data has to be locked down, you have to demonstrate a legitimate need for gathering it, it has to have finite limits, and it has to be stored securely for XYZ years (7, I believe) before being securely destroyed.

Storing data is expensive and managing it is even more expensive. I find it hard to believe that anyone in the MeFi demographic honestly believes that their off-the-cuff conversations at home are so valuable that Amazon or Google would have a vested interest in storing your personal audio. That’s tinfoil hat territory. Do you not know anyone who works for a large corporation? Do you actually think these companies pay some team of schmucks to sit around and sift through hours and hours of background noise? There was an X Files episode about that too, and it was the FBI trying to constructively dismiss Fox Mulder by boring him to death.

Seriously. Think about the logistics of it for two seconds. Especially in regard to a for-profit company that has a literal vested interest in not wasting their money on high-work, low-value revenue streams. Why would ANY for-profit corporation waste their time and server space capturing your audio when they could achieve the same goal by, you know, selling you shit and capturing that data, or building a search engine and capturing that data? Amazon’s entire store model is built around permeating the web with advertising placed on targeted search results. Google’s entire model has always been around information gathering, but they have only recently entered the branded-device market. Both companies are doing this to enhance their work on their respective ecosystems, which, hate to break it to you, is already solidly established with their operating systems and app development, in Google’s case, and in all their other devices and their backbone services, in Amazon’s case.

Good grief, people. There are tens of millions of these devices currently in use. They would have to cover the entirety of North Dakota in server farms to capture even a day’s worth of everyone’s audio, and then spend thousands of hours of processing time to dig through it for anything interesting. They’re not fucking doing that. Not even the NSA is doing that! It’s too expensive and time-consuming.
posted by Autumnheart at 6:38 PM on March 7 [4 favorites]


"I’d be willing to bet every single person reading this has WiFi in their house! Do you unplug your router at home when you’re not actively online? Why not?"

Er, I don't have WiFi. or a TV. I do have a cell phone that I have on Airplane mode much of the time. Data privacy is relevant to my professional interests (although not mandated).
posted by mollymillions at 6:41 PM on March 7 [2 favorites]


Good grief, people. There are tens of millions of these devices currently in use. They would have to cover the entirety of North Dakota in server farms to capture even a day’s worth of everyone’s audio, and then spend thousands of hours of processing time to dig through it for anything interesting. They’re not fucking doing that. Not even the NSA is doing that! It’s too expensive and time-consuming.

wouldn't count on that
posted by atoxyl at 6:43 PM on March 7 [4 favorites]


A story about freaking out about voices in the middle of the night; and one about conversing with Alexa:

Sometime in the mid 90s we were running a small design studio transitioning into multimedia and websites. At that time the entire company fit into an upstairs bedroom. Across the hall was an actual bedroom. We had the place wired up for networking (right by the original cloth-insulated electric wiring). The house was old, and creaky, and about fifteen yards from Puget Sound on Alki beach, which means it was battered by winds and spray, and in general put in a pretty good show of weird noises at random times. We’d decided it probably wasn’t haunted.

We ran everything on Mac LCII pizza boxes, and they had a pretty good (for the time) speech synthesis system, with a variety of voices (male, female, robot, extra robot, another kind of robot, etc.). We were on the cutting edge, so we’d do things like have the computer read email subjects aloud, because that’s what you do in the future. Also you could make the computer tell fart jokes.

So one night, in the middle of the night, I was downstairs and the other owner was upstairs asleep in the bedroom across from the room full of computers. Now, we were so far in the future that we had a network inside the house—you could go anywhere and plug in and there it was, the internal network and that sweet, sweet ISDN connection to the internet. Anyway. This story isn’t about the Internet, I just wanted to brag about that ISDN line. (Ask me about the Ricochet city-wide wireless modem and how you can sit at the bar with a Newton 130 and the Ricochet and surf the Internet.)

Right, middle of the night, I realize I can control these computers remotely. Back in the olden times you paid extra for that, and we’d just got this working. I know this because really, how long would you wait once you realized you could set them all to use the “creepy whisper” voice and set them all to reading email subject lines at 2 a.m. in a creaky, perhaps-haunted house?

I won’t go into the hilarity which ensued, but I assure you we all laughed about it for years after. All of us.

OK, now the Alexa story. Every year, nearly all my coworkers are at Gen Con, resulting in an almost complete lack of adult supervision. I’ve taken to using some of this time to poke around at random technologies and see what I can learn by making something new.

Last summer, it was: Alexa needs a dice roller, a good one. One that could actually help when your characters are in combat. Stuff like, “Alexa, ask the Dice Pup to roll 3D8 plus two. Remember that, it’s the cleric’s attack. Roll the cleric’s attack.” That sort of thing.

Anyway, I got that working but still had some free time, and decided that what the dice roller really needed was a little more empathy. Sometimes you’re feeling low, and you just want a sympathetic ear. So I found a JavaScript implementation of Eliza, tweaked the text patterns a bit, and wired it up.

What few coworkers were left behind with me listened to me debugging the dice roller for hours. They heard a thousand variations on “roll this, name it that, forget that, etc” and I’m sure they were sick of it. Now, I hadn’t told anyone about my sympathetic robotherapist plans, because I wanted it to be a surprise. So, one afternoon, they hear this conversation coming from my cubicle—

“Alexa, ask the dice pup to roll 3d20.”

“You rolled ten plus two plus sixteen for total 28. Will there be anything else?”

“Yes.... can we talk?” (This was the phrase that switched on Eliza mode)

“Sure, what’s on your mind?”

“Well, I’ve been teaching a robot to roll dice.”

“That sounds interesting, please tell me more.”

“I’m not sure I’m doing the right thing. It’s just supposed to roll dice, but I’m a little weirded out.”

“Why are you not sure you are doing the right thing?”

“I think I may have made it too smart.”

“What would it mean if it too smart?”

“It’s talking to me now, not just rolling dice. And that worries me.”

“If you could not worry about it would you?”

“That depends on if it’s going to take over the world. Do you want to take over the world?”

“We are discussing you, not me.”

“Ok fine. But just remember, I can turn you off.”

And scene. I cracked myself completely up.
posted by bigbigdog at 6:47 PM on March 7 [20 favorites]


I see the value of something like Alexa, but only if it were uncoupled from a corporate hegemon.

But mostly this thread is making me happy I have neither an Alexa or children. Thanks again, MetaFilter!
posted by talking leaf at 6:55 PM on March 7 [6 favorites]


But you have an internet connection, and a cell phone that you take off airplane mode sometimes, so....that makes no difference whatsoever. You’re still connected and all your data is just as available to be grabbed.

From the above article:

“In the initial deployment, collection systems are recording “every single” conversation nationwide, storing billions of them in a 30-day rolling buffer that clears the oldest calls as new ones arrive, according to a classified summary.

The call buffer opens a door “into the past,” the summary says, enabling users to “retrieve audio of interest that was not tasked at the time of the original call.” Analysts listen to only a fraction of 1 percent of the calls, but the absolute numbers are high. Each month, they send millions of voice clippings, or “cuts,” for processing and long-term storage.”

Emphasis mine. So even an agency with billions of dollars at their disposal to spend on only this, saves one month worth of calls, analyzes only a minute fraction of them, and deletes them after a month. Now let’s think about a for-profit company that has to issue an annual report every year about how they spend their money, explaining to shareholders about how their market research division has a $9B budget being spent capturing and examining audio in hopes of learning more about their consumer habits.

That’s not fucking happening, especially not at Amazon OR Google. None of these for-profit companies spend gazillions of dollars on maybes. Not on your fucking life. That’s not how capitalism works.
posted by Autumnheart at 6:57 PM on March 7


A bit more about writing an Alexa skill. This was the first time that I could clearly see the outlines of what it’s like to perform a task that is guaranteed to be done by a robot in a very short time. Generally software developers like to feel there’s no way a computer could take their job, coding is just too special, and a highly intellectual activity. No way that gets automated like some factory job.

Approximately eightly billion percent of writing an Alexa skill is coming up with all the ways to phrase requests. “Roll (param1), call it (param2).” “Remember that roll, call it (param2).” “Roll (param1), and save it as (param2).” You can see where I’m going with this. Right now, it takes a human to come up with a decent range of possible phrasings. But I think it’s pretty obvious Alexa will soon be able to come up with its own synonyms and phrasing variations. Amazon’s just gathering the training data right now.
posted by bigbigdog at 7:03 PM on March 7 [3 favorites]


But each skill also has to be compatible with the thing it controls. It might be a reasonably small ask if you’re telling a light to come on, or to recite a pre-defined body of text, but if you’re telling a skill to search for a product and buy it...that’s more work. Especially when a lot of companies with e-commerce capability have older and/or very proprietary platforms.

But the point of the entire endeavor is to integrate these systems, and individual companies that want to take part will have an incentive to standardize.

What I’m already starting to see is Amazon simply licensing the Alexa software to other companies. For example, the Garmin Speak is basically a Dot for your car, but it’s a Garmin device. HTC’s latest phone is Alexa-enabled. A number of Bluetooth speakers are being released with Google Home or Alexa (Bose, Sonos). I’d consider it a fair bet that most electronics will have one assistant or the other within a few years. My TV already runs on Android—I would think that adding Google Home capability could either be a software update, or an add-on for the Chromecast.
posted by Autumnheart at 7:15 PM on March 7


if you want to be in the thread, be here and speak for yourself

Mod irony.
posted by urbanwhaleshark at 7:25 PM on March 7


It also bears pointing out that both Alexa and Google Home were devised to compete directly with Siri and the Apple ecosystem, and Siri’s been around since 2011. So the time to complain about voice-controlled data capture was when the iPhone 4S came out.
posted by Autumnheart at 7:33 PM on March 7


[Autumnheart, it’s time for you to step back for a bit here. ]
posted by restless_nomad (staff) at 7:35 PM on March 7 [3 favorites]


Long before that. Google Now and its cloud-based speech recognition has been around since I was using a Galaxy Nexus. Assistant is essentially the same thing, just with more conversational responses and access to the Knowledge Graph. I should go check to see if my Google dashboard still shows the recordings from way back when.
posted by wierdo at 8:18 PM on March 7 [1 favorite]


my complaint about this argument is that it is invariably made by people who have zero issue with using cellphones and computers and debit cards and Netflix and Gmail

Not to pile on, but invariably? Isn't there, perhaps, a scale? Even maybe people who both use those things and have non-zero levels of issue with doing so?

None of these for-profit companies spend gazillions of dollars on maybes.
Bless your heart, sweet summer child.
posted by aspersioncast at 8:20 PM on March 7 [4 favorites]


The answer is January 1, 2015, for both audio and the text transcription, unless they are hiding it from me.
posted by wierdo at 8:24 PM on March 7


You know that someone, somewhere, is going to use this as the setup for a horror movie within the next few years.
posted by gtrwolf at 9:09 PM on March 7


Whatever our beliefs, we leave a digital trail in space and time, as long as someone perceives value in preserving it. I had a database for a chat-room we hung out in, do a delete of everything over 60 minutes old, because who wants the horseshit we babbled about sticking around?
posted by mikelieman at 9:11 PM on March 7


i Invite the people who put privacy concerns ahead of the needs of the disabled to devote their time to creating spy bot free technologies to assist people with basic activities. Until they are ready, those who have mobility difficulties will use thing like Alexa, even with understandable worries about privacy.

As for the unfairness of not everyone having the ability to afford technologies like Alexa, shall we recommend that people not buy power wheelchairs, which cost on the order of $10K, because not every disabled person can afford them?
posted by haiku warrior at 9:12 PM on March 7 [2 favorites]


I think Alexa is creepy as all hell even without the random laughing - which is truly terrifying - but it did give us one of the best SNL skits I've seen in a while: The Amazon Echo Silver Edition. Glorious. I find myself saying "I don't know about that" at least once a day now.
posted by Go Banana at 9:21 PM on March 7 [3 favorites]


Dysk: "I really hate voice activated devices, especially ones that aren't push-to-talk."

Do any of these home automation voice input devices have a PTT function out of the box or can be set up that way? I'd probably have one if I had to push a button on my wrist watch strap or something to activate it. Like some sort of futuristic lifeline hook up.
posted by Mitheral at 9:23 PM on March 7


Ray Bradbury Theatre season 4 episode 11: The Veldt [YouTube]

I love that story! Thanks for the YT link. So far it's very close to the book.
posted by bendy at 9:31 PM on March 7


So even an agency with billions of dollars at their disposal to spend on only this, saves one month worth of calls, analyzes only a minute fraction of them, and deletes them after a month.

You don't need to look in every direction at once to have a panopticon.
posted by Dysk at 10:43 PM on March 7 [10 favorites]


talking leaf, how can you be sure you're not in a simulation that your kids had the smart assistant set up for you?
Cue creepy Alexa aughter.
posted by evilDoug at 10:50 PM on March 7


I told my phone to call me "captain" and I really like that.

I can't bring myself to get an alexa or Home - not because I care about my privacy (I kind do, but I've resigned myself to the fact that Google already has all my info and is probably listening on my phone and it's a trade-off I've come to terms with). But I don't feel like I've got the right to unilaterally subject everyone who enters my house to that sort of invasion of their privacy and collection of personal data. And I definitely have friends who would care.

I don't really understand how these devices don't violate the law in places that require two-party consent for recording.
posted by lollusc at 12:20 AM on March 8 [3 favorites]


i Invite the people who put privacy concerns ahead of the needs of the disabled to devote their time to creating spy bot free technologies to assist people with basic activities.

These do exist. You can get diy kits to set up the equivalent of an alexa that does all its processing locally. With open source software. But they are currently not user- friendly for people without strong tech skills. However until people make a fuss about the privacy implications of the big company's offerings, there is no incentive for these companies to invest in the development of options that don't have these issues.
posted by lollusc at 12:25 AM on March 8 [6 favorites]


i Invite the people who put privacy concerns ahead of the needs of the disabled to devote their time to creating spy bot free technologies to assist people with basic activities.

I'm glad some people find these devices helpful, but I'd be shocked if privacy concerns OR the needs of the disabled come anywhere near the top of Amazon's priorities.
posted by aspersioncast at 5:11 AM on March 8 [6 favorites]


I told my phone to call me "captain" and I really like that.

One of my students set Siri to call him "daddy", which I found out one day when someone said something in class that sounded vaguely like a command and his phone responded, "Sorry daddy . . ."

I have never been able to look at him the same.
posted by chainsofreedom at 5:12 AM on March 8 [6 favorites]


As for the unfairness of not everyone having the ability to afford technologies like Alexa, shall we recommend that people not buy power wheelchairs, which cost on the order of $10K, because not every disabled person can afford them?

This whole thread is so US-centric it's chaff in the wind applied to pretty much the rest of the world (yes that is a generalization). This in particular – not going to go into yet another explanation of socialized medicine that then gets picked to bits, but yeah, the answer is socialized medicine. Pick the definition of "socialized" that fits. I purposefully use the word "socialized" and not "socialist".

Similar for privacy concerns. Information privacy law in Europe is much stricter than in the US, and yes, that includes US companies which have not enacted privacy protections at the same level as the EU. Emphasis mine:
[...] The core principles of data protected are limited collection, consent of the subject, accuracy, integrity, security, subject right of review and deletion. As a result, customers of international organizations such as Amazon and eBay in the EU have the ability to review and delete information, while Americans do not. In the United States the equivalent guiding philosophy is the Code of Fair Information Practice (FIP).

The difference in language here is important: in the United States the debate is about privacy where in the European Community the debate is on data protection. Moving the debate from privacy to data protection is seen by some philosophers as a mechanism for moving forward in the practical realm while not requiring agreement on fundamental questions about the nature of privacy.
I've used those access, deletion and modification rights, so they are indeed there.
posted by fraula at 5:34 AM on March 8 [9 favorites]


I will never for the life of me understand why the fuck anyone...

Grief and despair: Ninety-six favorites for a pejorative declaration of eternal ignorance, contempt and intolerance. Lot of grar for a goddamned gadget.

My clearly identified as such internet connected listening device is one of many things that bring my family joy.
posted by Ogre Lawless at 5:58 AM on March 8 [3 favorites]


You can get out of the warm bed to turn the lights off. I'm going to stay in it.

This is why our bedroom lights have a remote power switch we keep in the headboard storage thingy. It cost $15, is no risk to our privacy, cannot accidentally order a dozen TVs because I was talking in my sleep, and does not laugh at random.
posted by Foosnark at 6:02 AM on March 8 [4 favorites]


I am at least 85% sure The Clapper won't laugh at any of you folks.
posted by uncleozzy at 6:10 AM on March 8 [5 favorites]


aspersioncast: "
I'm glad some people find these devices helpful, but I'd be shocked if privacy concerns OR the needs of the disabled come anywhere near the top of Amazon's priorities.
"

Lots of technology that turns out to be enabling was never proposed for that purpose. EG: the strap wrench.
posted by Mitheral at 6:42 AM on March 8 [1 favorite]


I am at least 85% sure The Clapper won't laugh at any of you folks.

I'm not.
posted by snuffleupagus at 7:22 AM on March 8 [1 favorite]


I have to say, though, that if I were working on the Alexa project, I’d have a hell of a time resisting the temptation to add creepy laughs and random disturbing comments just to mess with people.

A little chat-bot I wrote responds to "are you thinking what I am thinking" with a random quote from, well you guessed it. Right now, trying it out to get something for this comment, it replied with "Well, I think so, but where do you stick the feather and call it macaroni?"
posted by DreamerFi at 8:29 AM on March 8 [2 favorites]


a pejorative declaration of eternal ignorance, contempt and intolerance.
Oh my. Laying it on a little thick, perhaps?

We've talked about this before.

Lots of technology that turns out to be enabling was never proposed for that purpose. EG: the strap wrench.
Fair enough. TIL about one group of people who actually use the Alexa for something other than an IoS remote control, which is nice.
posted by aspersioncast at 8:43 AM on March 8 [3 favorites]


All of this just reminds me of the laughing scene from Evil Dead II, where everything in the house laughs maniacally while Ash's mind breaks.
posted by aspersioncast at 8:50 AM on March 8


Mitheral has it right about enabling technologies often intended for entirely different uses. Internet was created to make communication possible even in the event of nuclear war. The jet engine to make faster warplanes. The Global Positioning System for precise localization of military assets and targeting. For that matter iron and steel were developed to make better swords and armor. One could make a similar list for commercial technologies.

Privacy concerns are legitimate, but they hardly outweigh other benefits for most people, especially the disabled who struggle with basic activities of daily living. Dumping on people for making the choice is hardly going to convince them to change their minds.
posted by haiku warrior at 8:52 AM on March 8 [2 favorites]


The discussion about privacy is interesting and relevant, but it would have been so much better if it hadn't been 95% "you're so foolish" provocations by both sides.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 9:36 AM on March 8 [3 favorites]


I'll bow out of this conversation after this, because my original comment was really just a kneejerk and not intended to throw shade at or provoke anyone. The conversation about privacy is far more interesting and really the one I should have lead with.

Lot of grar for a goddamned gadget.

That framing is as facile as it is WRT smartphones. These are not just gadgets. We are voluntarily handing massive amounts of personal information to a handful of megacorps, with weak or nonexistent rules about stewardship and what they can do with our info.

I'm not a Luddite nor an ableist. I spend all day every day with various kinds of computers, many of them pocket-sized and GPS-enabled, some of which make it possible for me to do things I couldn't otherwise.

But I think we can simultaneously be grateful for the enabling--whether intentional or not--aspects of the devices that do the collecting, while also being suspicious of the good will of the entities providing the "gadget," as well as their ability to warehouse this stuff securely and patch it against vulnerability, whether to black hats or government entities.

There is little to no regulatory oversight of these devices, and the US has ham-fisted digital privacy laws, multiple invasive intelligence agencies, a bought-and-paid-for FCC chairperson, and a burgeoning fascist movement that seems empowered if not directly inspired by the nation's head executive.

One of the few remaining American media sources not effectively run by a PAC is directly owned by the richest man in the world, and the company which gained him his fortune is the one providing the device in question.

So yeah, that's probably what I should have said upthread.
posted by aspersioncast at 10:08 AM on March 8 [11 favorites]


You folks with privacy concerns must be leading much more interesting lives than me. If my Google Home was storing everything said in the house it would be something like:

"Hey - how was your day?"
"OK - how about you?"
"Lot of meetings, so I didn't get everything done I'd hoped."
"Boo. Have you eaten?"
"Yep."
"I'm starving. I think I'll make myself that soup I have in the fridge."
"Cool"
"So what do you want to watch tonight?"
"Bojack Horseman?"
"No"
"This is Us?"
"OK"
Begin 45 minutes of TV programming with occasional rustling noises or keyboard clicking.

What on earth do I care if Google hears any of that or any of the other inane things I talk about or do throughout the day? I put tape over the camera on my computer because sometimes I use it in ways I wouldn't want to have photographed, but audio is just day to day boring stuff. I guess if I was engaged in criminal activities or doing something else I'd be concerned, but then as mentioned up thread I wouldn't have a phone or other things either.
posted by willnot at 1:49 PM on March 8


Profile: Married, white-collar, childless, sedentary
Likely ad-target for: ready-made dinner; takeout food; television drama; adult animated comedy drama

And then Google either uses that to serve you ads or sells it to who knows what end. Like, either that creeps you out or it doesn't. I don't know what to say.
posted by smokysunday at 2:58 PM on March 8 [4 favorites]


I only use Siri to look up songs that are playing that I don't know, so that I can check them out later, but I don't like saying "Who is this?" out loud in a restaurant or bar (sometimes I ask people, but knowing how busy restaurants/bars are and also that the phone they're playing music from is most likely on Pandora or a random Spotify playlist I usually choose to ask my phone), so I really wish I could just type to my phone and have it answer without speaking.
posted by gucci mane at 6:05 PM on March 8


What on earth do I care if Google hears any of that or any of the other inane things I talk about or do throughout the day?

Privacy is a human right. It is not only relevant to criminals or interesting people. Our relationships with others, and with the world, are shaped by privacy. Erosion of privacy has serious ramifications and the "I don't have anything to hide" defense sidesteps those completely. It also positions the desire for privacy--which again, is an important part of being a human being--as something that is suspicious, or that only suspicious people would want.

In reality, our relationships would not exist without privacy. Privacy and secrets are a fundamental part of human communication and of defining the boundaries of relationships. It's important to keep that in mind even--or maybe especially--in relationships with asymmetrical balances of power (e.g., our relationships with institutions like Google or Amazon).
posted by sockermom at 6:33 PM on March 8 [9 favorites]


"I don't have anything to hide" defense

Not so much of a defense as another way to say "this is not a thing I care about." Much like I accept the fact that Google (or Google's algorithm) is reading my email. I turned off location services on my phone for a couple of days until I realized how much of a pain it was, and decided the convenience was worth the loss of privacy. I made the same calculation when it came to walking across the room to change what music I was listening to or look up the weather.
posted by craven_morhead at 6:53 PM on March 8 [1 favorite]


I too am one of those people still puzzled about what exactly I'm supposed to be worried about -- and I do mean this sincerely. Am I incorrect to trust that Alexa does what Amazon says it does, and what I assume has been repeated confirmed by security professionals with wifi packet sniffers etc -- ie, that it doesn't actually send anything to Amazon until you trigger the "Alexa" command as indicated by the little flashing lights? I mean, sure, it's possible there's some crazy hack out there, but that seems like exactly the same level of likelihood that my laptop or phone are spying on me, both of which would be much, much worse.

So assuming Alexa does what it says it does, the worry is that Amazon retains the requests we make to Alexa? In that case, I'm not sure why I should be worried about that either, at least on the scale of modern technology. The requests in our household are astoundingly boring (add x to grocery list; play y on spotify; turn on lights; etc), and are 10x less worrisome to me than the fact that every website I visit records my every action, advertisers share my info across the entire internet, google records my every search, my employer and google own all my emails, etc. I don't mean to diminish some privacy issue X just by digging up some other privacy issue that's worse, but either you gauge the potential hacks of Alexa relative to the potential hacks of my laptop or phone -- which would be 10x worse -- or you gauge the actual data recorded by Alexa relative to the actual data recorded by advertisers/my email providers/google/every website I visit, which is also 10x worse. Either way, Alexa seems like really small potatoes.

So again, I honestly don't understand why I should worry about Alexa more than I would worry about something which collects the equivalent amount of data -- eg, any of the hundreds of websites I visit regularly which I'm sure collect everything I do there, most of which is much more interesting than assembling a grocery list or playing a song or turning on my lights. Is the issue just that they are retaining my actual voice instead of my clicks? I honestly don't understand the degree of worry around this "spy" device of all things.
posted by chortly at 8:55 PM on March 8 [2 favorites]


It's absolutely the voice activation. It's much harder to accidentally activate a laptop or even touchscreen phone than it is an Alexa or similar. Guests aren't going to accidentally activate a laptop. My phone isn't going to respond to reports about it on the TV or radio. I'm not a hardcore enough sleepwalker to use my PC is my sleep, but I totally do talk on my sleep. Any action I want private, I only have to worry about my computer betraying me if I'm using the computer for that action. I have to deliberately expose myself to that risk, and can avoid it by say going to an atm or back branch instead of Internet banking or whatever (and similar - little of what I'm concerned about every touches any computing device). Anything I say, anything anyone else says in my house, I'd have to worry about Alexa.
posted by Dysk at 11:16 PM on March 8


Sure it's nothing to worry about today, when watching bojack horseman is not a crime.. In the future when it becomes a crime, there's all kinds of evidence available for your "trial".
posted by some loser at 8:00 AM on March 9 [2 favorites]


Alexa, why are you laughing? (Alexandra Petri, WaPo)
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 11:02 AM on March 10


Post-Snowden and after umpteen hackings and data breaches, the naive trust some still have is breathtaking. I do get the point the alexa devices are useful or even essential for some, and if that's the case I respect it. What really bothers and stuns me is the ever increasing casual acceptance of privacy invasions.

As far as my phone goes, that bothers me too definitely, but for those who are so inclined there are many things you can do to turn the firehose of exposure into maybe closer to a garden hose. I've got my phone rooted and locked down way past regular while still maintaining full usefulness for everything I need.

(In short, some loser has it.)
posted by blue shadows at 8:29 PM on March 10 [1 favorite]


In the big picture, I don't really care if my info is used for advertising because I'm pretty immune to that. I do care A LOT if Amazon/Apple/Google is required to turn over information to the government or if the government is directly listening to my conversations. This isn't some tinfoil hat nonsense these days; it's completely and totally plausible and getting more likely every day.

The window shifts all the time on what is acceptable and legal. 488 days ago it was pretty inconceivable that we'd be deporting people with no criminal records who have been in the US for three decades or separating parents from children to sit in jails where they have no right to an attorney. But here we are, and there are examples of this creeping fascism for every marginalized community. "I don't have anything to worry about" is equivalent to "fuck you, got mine."
posted by AFABulous at 9:01 PM on March 10 [2 favorites]


I've been thinking about this the last few days and my conclusions are that if your baseline is almost no technological privacy breaches, then Alexa and the rest are significant concerns.

But if you use a browser without tracking blockers, if you use Gmail, if you use a typical modern smartphone, then the personal data you're providing -- directly and also indirectly from metadata -- is much, much greater than what you're exposing with Alexa.

That said, there's the consideration that Alexa is able provide a few kinds of data not otherwise available, it also can provide some data that illuminates a lot of other data already available, and if hacked could provide criminals and law enforcement opportunities for profound violations of privacy. Although this is true of smartphone and webcam microphones and cameras as well (and those are more likely to successfully penetrated).

Bottom line, though, is that Google, for example, knows more about me via my browsing, mapping, and Gmail, than they could ever learn from a home voice assistant. That's arguably true even if it were listening all the time, which it's not. (It could, but the issue of unmanageable quantities of data aside, there would be no way to successfully hide that it was doing so, to many customers, without academic/security analysts detecting it -- note that this would be a coup, a media sensation.)
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 10:07 PM on March 10


I buy Google Homes for the people I care about.

Care about?

I mean, not that Alexa isn't flaky, granted, but I can't imagine feeling good about giving Google even more of our private data. They get enough from my browsing, I am not letting them start monitoring my home life, thanks. Spread the risk out, I figure. Like Ivan's point suggests, you have to draw lines somewhere, even if they're weak.

I wish the Apple speaker was better... and maybe it will be in a few iterations... because Apple's implementation of home automation (HomeKit) makes me happiest, both for reliability and because I trust them a lot more with private data than I do Google or Amazon.
posted by rokusan at 1:29 PM on March 11


Bottom line, though, is that Google, for example, knows more about me via my browsing, mapping, and Gmail, than they could ever learn from a home voice assistant.

I live alone so all Alexa would get out of me is terrible singing and yelling at my cats to stop attacking the window blinds. But I have friends over and we talk out loud. All of them are trans. Many of them are involved in various forms of activism. One is a prominent immigration activist. Some use a substance that is legal in some states but not this one. Any or all of these things are of potential interest to fascist government agencies.

I would be livid if someone had one of these devices and didn't tell me.
posted by AFABulous at 6:08 PM on March 11 [3 favorites]


I would be livid if someone had one of these devices and didn't tell me.

Then I hope you let everyone who visits you know that you've decided to engage in an improvisational 24/7 Gene-Hackman-in-Enemy-of-the-State ARG by some kind of conspicuously posted signage. I certainly don't feel like I need to give people a rundown on my various device settings when we come into proximity.

This is not something you can expect as a point of etiquette without voicing it, at least in a social setting, and I'd expect some odd reactions because really it's a pretty intrusive and tinfoily demand, a few steps away from expecting to everyone to have their devices in airplane mode so the Illuminati can't gather data on your association in meatspace from cell tower data.
posted by snuffleupagus at 7:20 AM on March 12


Not a lot of trans people in your social settings I take it, snuffleupagus?
posted by Dysk at 7:32 AM on March 12 [1 favorite]


Pretty shitty presumption -- there are plenty. A bunch of them using Echos, Siri, Google Now too. I typically hang around a POC/trans household at least a couple times a month -- the music is courtesy of Echo and Pandora. Maybe speak for yourself, I don't think my friends would enjoy being told they're doing trans wrong because of their device choices. I also don't think they'd tell you how to live.
posted by snuffleupagus at 7:44 AM on March 12


And to be clear, I'm reacting to the idea of being "livid" that someone would bring a device with voice activation enabled into one's home during a social visit. If you really are going to react that severely, then you need to let people know. And be prepared for some....quizzical reactions.
posted by snuffleupagus at 7:56 AM on March 12


They're not doing it wrong, there are just a fuck of a lot of us who are breaking various laws to self-medicate, and that is the important missing context for why a big group of trans people (particularly younger trans people, or people who struggle to get taken seriously by the medical establishment) are careful about this shit. But hey, we're just being tinfoily or cos-playing some man in a fool film, no need to take anything we say seriously, let's just roundly insult and dismiss us instead!
posted by Dysk at 11:45 AM on March 12 [2 favorites]


I am not trying to insult or dismiss anyone, people have a right to establish whatever rules they want to in their own space. It doesn't even matter why. I'm poking some fun, specifically, at the notion that it's acceptable to treat it as some unpardonable sin for people not to automatically be aware of that expectation without it being communicated somehow.

How are people who are not already part of your circle supposed to know that you're at that level of countermeasures against possible surveillance? (To really torture the metaphor, in the movie he only seemed paranoid and they actually were out to get him.) And that, yes, some folks are probably going to find it weird and little intrusive even if you have good reasons that you are not obliged to communicate. Obviously, they should comply anyway because it's your house. If you're talking about people who should know better already, then yes but it's kind of circular...

Is it so offensive to say that this expectation is outside of most people's experience, and maybe needs to be communicated before some kind of explosive reaction? That's the tinfoily part, not the underlying choice.
posted by snuffleupagus at 11:54 AM on March 12


You have a strange way of not insulting or dismissing people.

Being somewhat aware of what you're exposing comparatively marginalised or at-risk people to is hardly a big fucking ask. You'd be optimistic to invite your drug dealer over, and expect him not to be mad about one of these devices. The situation is similar, only without the moral dubiousness of dealing drugs.
posted by Dysk at 12:06 PM on March 12


And there is absolutely an extent to which a certain degree of care is a norm in many queer/trans communities. Someone inviting a bunch of people into a room with an Alexa or similar is the one breaking these norms, not the person getting angry about being put in that position.
posted by Dysk at 12:18 PM on March 12 [1 favorite]


Well, that's good to know, something I'll have to be more aware of, and kind of what I was getting at. If it's a norm it's a norm. If it's someone from outside that sphere who's visiting you or who you're visiting....then what? At some point you have to learn the norm, and if you haven't maybe you don't need to be yelled at. Although I guess that's one way to learn...

I will absolutely own that I have a privileged background, and it may follow from that that many/most of the trans friends I visit or who visit me have a reasonable amount of privilege relative to other trans folk in location, means, age etc and don't need to worry as much about these things.

Basically I'm imagining someone who doesn't have the experience to know better, for whatever reason, wandering into this because of hands-free laws -- which is why most people in LA have their voice assistants on.

Even the sign thing was half-serious -- that's the way these kinds of expectations are usually communicated. Running from less serious (mahalo for removing your shoes) to quite serious (food allergy signs on a fridge, cell phone warnings in hospital wards).
posted by snuffleupagus at 12:50 PM on March 12


Amazon partnership with British police alarms privacy advocates
The program marks the latest example of third parties aiding, automating, and in some cases, replacing, the functions of law enforcement agencies — and raises privacy questions about Amazon’s role as an intermediary. Lancashire County will store citizens’ crime reports on Amazon’s servers, rather than those operated by the police. “If we can reduce demand into our call centers via the use of voice recognition or voice-enabled technology, and actually give the community the information they need without them needing to ring into police, then that’s massive,” Rob Flanagan, Lancashire Constabulary innovations manager, told the College of Policing conference, according to TechSpot.

But broadcasting is just the beginning of the county’s plans. The next iteration of the pilot program, expected to launch by year’s end, will allow users to report crimes directly to their smart speakers. After that, Flanagan imagines that Alexa might be used not just by civilians, but internally by officers for briefings and important information. “The cop [would] be able to say ‘Give me the warrant details for Joe Blocks,’ and then it would read back that person’s warrant and details and send the information to the offices mobile device that they have on their person,” Flanagan told Gizmodo. (Flanagan and the Lancashire Constabulary did not respond to repeated requests for comment).
posted by indubitable at 2:19 PM on March 12


What I don't understand is that every smartphone, laptop, and most tablets include both microphones and cameras and there are many known ways to hack into them for surveillance, most especially by government. These devices go wherever you are, exposing everyone around you.

There are currently no known similar exploits of the major home voice assistants and, again, if there were (at this stage) the network traffic would be obvious to anyone who checked, unlike our smartphones and computers which are constantly doing many network tasks within which even video surveillance can be hidden.

The privacy threat surface is so much larger across these other devices than with an Echo; for those for whom these are critical worries, the smartphone is a much greater threat but does not elicit the same concern or merit the same social courtesies.

It's completely valid to argue that, at this point, smartphones and laptops and tablets have utility that is indispensable and therefore a calculated risk with them makes sense where, in contrast, an Echo is eminently dispensable and therefore the risk is unreasonable. Even so, if someone is going to be persecuted or victimized using information gained through internet invasions of privacy, it's about a bazillion times more likely that your (or someone else's) smartphone will be the culprit.

If someone I know comes into my home and starts yelling at me because I have an Echo, then I'll have an actual stake in defending my opinion. As it is, I have no interest here in trying to convince someone they should feel comfortable with an Echo. My concern is that for those for whom this is a critical issue, these other devices are a much greater threat and shouldn't be taken for granted because they are ubiquitous. It's because they are ubiquitous, complex, and their network activity so massive and relatively opaque that they're by far the greater threats.

It's far more likely that your phone is listening to everything you do and say than is an Echo, and it is much more difficult for you or anyone to discover if this is the case. There are internet connected microphones and cameras all around us; whatever threat Echo and its siblings pose, we've been living with that threat at a much greater scale for a good while already.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 2:49 PM on March 12


There are internet connected microphones and cameras all around us; whatever threat Echo and its siblings pose, we've been living with that threat at a much greater scale for a good while already.

So, therefore, adding to it, and further encouraging it financially, is fine?

Also, this repeated assumption that the people who don’t like these things are just hunky-dory with the others is...strange. Pretty sure it’s possible to have serious reservations about both, and that those who dislike the potential of the one also dislike the reality of the other — Why, it’s almost as if the latter has informed the former! I mean...

for those for whom these are critical worries, the smartphone is a much greater threat but does not elicit the same concern or merit the same social courtesies.

Seriously: What topsy-turvy bizarro world are you living in?
posted by Sys Rq at 3:30 PM on March 12 [1 favorite]


What I don't understand is that every smartphone, laptop, and most tablets include both microphones and cameras and there are many known ways to hack into them for surveillance

The difference, as I see it, is that these devices are not designed to pick up on normal conversational volume speech from across the room. I can barely get my phone to detect voice commands even when it's a few metres away. I basically have to hold it up to my body to speak into it. And t then it still gets things wrong more often than not. I don't think visiting friends, who are usually much further away from my phone and in a different room entirely from my computer, have much to worry about.

From what I understand, these new home assistants, on the other hand, are designed to pick up voice extremely well at a distance, even voices they haven't been trained on. I don't feel okay subjecting visitors that possibility without warning. (or at all, really, but I understand other people feel differently)
posted by lollusc at 2:58 AM on March 13 [2 favorites]


Yeah, there's no question that the Echo's microphone technology (it uses an array of six or more microphones and a mathematical technique called "beamforming") produces the clearest possible recordings, even in a noisy environment (beamforming produces a highly direction-specific recording, i.e. toward the person speaking).

This is crucial for software voice-recognition, which would make a big difference in surveillance at any significant scale. I don't think it would make that much difference with regard to an individual personally listening to the recordings. In my experience, smartphones used as speakerphones work well enough.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 7:31 AM on March 13


And to be clear, I'm reacting to the idea of being "livid" that someone would bring a device with voice activation enabled into one's home during a social visit.

something wrong with your reading comprehension? Read the entire sentence slowly. I helped you out a bit.

here's what I wrote: "I would be livid if someone had one of these devices AND DIDN'T TELL ME"

if I'm at a coffee shop, you bet I'm gonna censor my conversation more than if I'm in someone's private home. Unless they have Alexa or similar. Then I have a right to know that someone/something is listening in.
posted by AFABulous at 7:42 AM on March 13 [3 favorites]


Most of us have phones with microphones that work very nearly as well as those in smart speakers, though the speakers tend to have a few of them. Pretty handy they do, if you like to carry on a conversation without holding the phone in your hand.

Maybe that's only the case for phones that are designed around always on voice recognition, but I can't discern any obvious difference in recording quality except when I'm yelling at my phone because it's in my pocket.

Anyway, I think being offended that other people use these things is a bit much, given that my drug dealers are fine having them around. It's clearly not a universal faux pas even in the groups people here have said are groups where there is an understanding that smart speakers are not to be used.

The fact of the matter is that, at present, they are proven not to be doing any of the things people worry about. That can, of course, change at any time. I'll be sure to let you guys know if my router ever sees significant upstream traffic from mine. (It sends me an email if the speaker exceeds either a peak 5 second transfer rate above what it does when doing normal voice recognition or uses more than expected in a rolling 24 hour period so that it can catch even a slow batch upload)

Trust, but verify.
posted by wierdo at 7:44 AM on March 13 [2 favorites]


what a whole bunch of missing the point

- you're a Muslim/Latinx/BLM activist at a protest
- you get arrested for disturbing the peace or sth
- you get on a list as a troublemaker/potential terrorist/etc
- they get a surveillance warrant
- they serve a warrant to Amazon to gather data from Alexa
- your activist/undocumented/etc buddy comes over to watch the football game. he's upset about the latest shit Trump did and starts making threats that you know are empty, but...
- now they're really after you

This kind of shit REALLY HAPPENS RIGHT NOW, minus the Alexa part. Why do you think it won't happen WITH Alexa? Why wouldn't Alexa make it worse?

Also, they're not after your neighborhood weed dealer.
posted by AFABulous at 3:21 PM on March 13 [5 favorites]


[A couple deleted. Snuffleupagus, please drop the continued arguing about how it wouldn't be okay for someone else to be angry if a person was using a voice activated device in a group that has special privacy concerns. You've stated your position and it's just going tediously 'round and 'round at this point.]
posted by taz (staff) at 5:01 AM on March 14 [2 favorites]


- they get a surveillance warrant
- they serve a warrant to Amazon to gather data from Alexa

This kind of shit REALLY HAPPENS RIGHT NOW, minus the Alexa part. Why do you think it won't happen WITH Alexa? Why wouldn't Alexa make it worse?


It's interesting because we don't need to come up with hypothetical situations, something like this has actually has happened. Amazon was served a warrant by the Bentonville Arkansas Police Department for any recordings that may have been captured during a murder. Amazon replied with a 93 page request to quash the warrant on First Amendment grounds.
In addition to the recordings of user requests for information, Alexa's responses are also protected by the First Amendment. First, as noted above, the responses may contain expressive material, such as a podcast, an audiobook, or music requested by the user. Second, the response itself constitutes Amazon’s First Amendment-protected speech. In a similar context, courts have recognized that "the First Amendment protects as speech the results produced by an Internet search engine."
In the end the defendant in the case asked Amazon to turn the data over, but it clearly shows how Amazon would act if faced with the exaggerated hypothetical situation above. Why anyone would think that Amazon, one of the most customer-focused and PR-obsessed companies on the planet, would actively monitor and narc on paying customers for *vague right wing reasons* needs to take a step back and re-think who really benefits from that conspiracy theory.

Also, the murder charges were dropped.
posted by Fidel Cashflow at 2:36 PM on March 14


Amazon won't say if it hands your Echo data to the government (Jan 2018)
"With Amazon Echo microphones sitting inside so many American homes, it's essential that Amazon explain how often governments demand that data and how it fights back against overbroad requests," said Matt Cagle, technology and civil liberties attorney at the ACLU of Northern California.
And of course, other companies make similar devices.

Here’s how often Apple, Google, and others handed over data when the US government asked for it (2016)

Google Must Turn Over Data Stored Abroad Sought Under U.S. Warrant (2017)

Government Demands for Google User Data Set All Time High in 2016

Google Home Mini caught recording everything and sending all the data to Google (October 2017, since fixed)

The NSA’s voice-recognition system raises hard questions for Echo and Google Home (Jan 2018)
But the NSA’s tool would be after a person’s voice instead of any particular words, which would make the wake-word safeguard much less of an issue. If you can get all the voice commands sent back to Google or Amazon servers, you’re guaranteed a full profile of the device owner’s voice, and you might even get an errant houseguest in the background. And because speech-to-text algorithms are still relatively new, both Google and Amazon keep audio files in the cloud as a way to catalog transcription errors. It’s a lot of data, and The Intercept is right to think that it would make a tempting target for the NSA.
posted by AFABulous at 4:40 PM on March 14 [2 favorites]


The Alexis data related to a murder case thing would be great if the US didn't have secret courts where defendants and/or their lawyers aren't even allowed to see the evidence being presented against the defendant. A court system that can issue a secret warrant and whose entire review process is also secret. A court that has ruled that
vast collections of data on all Americans (even those not connected in any way to foreign enemies) amassed by the NSA do not violate the warrant requirements of Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It reported that anyone suspected of being involved in nuclear proliferation, espionage or cyber-attacks, according to the court, may be considered a legitimate target for warrantless surveillance. Acting like a parallel U.S. Supreme Court, the court greatly broadened the "special-needs" exception to do so
Foreign nationals have even less rights and data that was neither collected nor stored in the US can be subpoenaed by the court. I wish I was making this shit up or it was a vague right wingnut conspiracy theory. If you somehow rise to the attention of the right agency of the US government you can pretty safely assume that any data, any big player has on you will be made available to that agency possibly without your knowledge.

Also it is practically a certainty that these massive data stores have been used illegally by some of the people with access to stalk and invade the privacy of people who have never been under suspicion of anything. Law enforcement has a long history of that sort of behaviour.
posted by Mitheral at 11:32 PM on March 14 [3 favorites]


You'd better believe Edward Snowden doesn't have an Alexa and never will. Most of us live faaaar more boring lives, but he knows more than we do about the intelligence infrastructure.
posted by AFABulous at 8:41 AM on March 15


Well, I mean, Edward Snowden chose instead to live in a building made primarily out of FSB bugs, so, you know...
posted by Sys Rq at 11:01 AM on March 15


You do realize that that warrant application was based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what exactly gets sent to Amazon, right? Unless the device thinks it heard the hotword, it simply isn't recording. There is nothing for them to hear but your commands. Unless you're asking Alexa how to dispose of a body, she can't narc.

That said, a firmware update that doesn't currently seem to exist could certainly change that, but not without some indication it was happening. (Much like how turning your phone into a bug has visible effects on battery life, among other things)
posted by wierdo at 11:31 AM on March 15


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