Alexa! Whose Listening?

Do you worry about your personal information or even your deepest private thoughts being swept away by some device or person listening to your every word? Maybe that new TV you bought is showing more than you bargained for! I grew up in the 50’s and 60’s when these kinds of ideas were first rearing their ugly heads. I read the book 1984 20 years before that ominous year came to pass, as a sophomore in high school. Now here we are 35 years beyond 1984 and so much of the fictional, fantasy worlds ideas are here and working just fine among us. Amazon recently acknowledged that it employs people to listen to an “extremely small number of interactions from a random set of customers” who have the company’s virtual assistant, Alexa, on devices such as smart speakers in their homes. The company says it does so in order to improve the accuracy of the software’s future responses. The idea of other people listening in to what we say in the privacy of our homes is creepy enough. But the real danger lies in the potential for Amazon to aggregate all that information and use it to try to manipulate us — or for others to get their hands on it and use it against us. Conversations that Amazon records can of course tell the company a lot about us. For example, the questions we ask and directions we give Alexa — like “what’s the weather?” or “play jazz music” — can indicate a great deal about what we like and care about. Then that information could be combined with data about what we buy on the site and the times of day we shop to get to know even more about us. It could recognize, for example, that a person buys certain products linked to being tired or lonely at a particular time of day. The types of things we do with Alexa can also be extrapolated to make predictions about us that are often eerily accurate. Whistleblower Christopher Wylie, former staffer for Cambridge Analytica — the consulting firm that worked on President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and allegedly improperly accessed data from Facebook (Cambridge Analytica has denied the allegation) — has noted that our choices of music and clothing are key clues to our political beliefs. Do you buy Wrangler jeans? If so, your political beliefs are likely conservative, according to Wylie. A recent working study by economists at the University of Chicago also found that our purchases can predict our race, gender and education with an accuracy of as much as 90%. Amazon could use this data to strategically engineer our search results on the site, or adjust when it sends us marketing emails and what they contain based on what the company has learned about our preferences. While it can sometimes be helpful to get personalized product recommendations for items Amazon’s algorithm realizes might be useful to us, users might also be manipulated into buying products they otherwise wouldn’t have if the company pinpoints and tries to take advantage of their weaknesses.
There’s also nothing to stop Amazon from selling our information to third parties — like political candidates — who could try to target and appeal to us. Even if companies like Amazon pledge to protect our privacy, they could always change their minds, which is what Facebook retroactively did in 2010. The social media giant made the pages that we “liked” public, even though it had previously told users that such information would only be shared with friends. This caused the Federal Trade
Commission to get involved and the company ultimately  made changes to allow users to determine who sees the pages they connect with. The scary thing isn’t just that Amazon is listening in on our homes. It’s that it is gathering so much data about us that it is increasingly able to get into our minds — and we can’t be certain that these insights won’t be used for nefarious purposes

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