Thoughts with Richard Bleil
Sometimes, home computer devices such as Alexa will freak people out. In the midst of a conversation, she’ll just interject with some kind of comment or question, and often one that is appropriate for the conversation occurring. My friend looked it up and was surprised to discover that, yes, she is always listening.
In modern society, we invite a lot of large corporations into our daily lives, to listen in, to measure our proclivities, and even to have access to our data. Of COURSE Alexa is always listening. It’s how the device works. It has to be listening, or it would never hear its “wake-up” word. And, honestly, if she’s always listening, then she has the capability to transmit our conversations to her home corporation. Does she? I assume not, but I honestly don’t know. After all, I’m no different than anybody else, so yes, I click “accept” on those agreements without knowing the content. I assume she does not; this would actually be a LOT of data, which means that Amazon would have to build huge storage systems to handle the constant stream of conversations and data. But the potential is there. And every time we buy one of these devices, be it Amazon, Google, Microsoft (Cortana) or some other corporation, we are literally paying a huge corporation to do what so many people fear the government is doing, specifically listening in on our conversations.
It goes beyond these devices though. A few years ago, an actress was “shocked” when somebody publicized private nude photos of her. She was using the Apple cloud service for data storage and had an obvious username and used a password easily based on a character she had played in a movie. Suddenly, people seemed to realize, and were shocked to learn, that others have data to their data when stored in the “cloud”. Well of course they do. “Cloud” is a friendly little term meant to make people feel comfortable, but in reality, they are huge data storage devices. When we use cloud services, we are literally giving our data to a corporation, and that data is accessible to anybody who can figure out your username and password. Does the cloud service corporation own your data, or scrutinize it? I don’t know, but they have the ability to do so, and people who fear the government looking at their pictures and data are giving these corporations that very ability. This is why I won’t use cloud services (mainly out of fear that if they suddenly change their terms or go out of business my data will be lost). Every time I buy a computer device, as long as I am able to do so, I buy as large of an internal hard drive as possible. That way, only I have access to my data.
And, yes, it goes further. Right now, I’m listening to Pandora, a great streaming service for music, and I own a couple of services for streaming movies. Sometimes, I’ll even watch one of the “free” streaming services with commercials. Every single one of these track my preferences, what kinds of movies and music I tap into, and they use that to make suggestions. Today I looked into what it would cost to buy a base shortwave radio transmitter just to see if I might want to do it as a hobby, but now that online shopping service knows my interest in it and will add it to all of the other data it has collected on me to track my interests. And, yes, I have purchased sex toys online, and yes, they track that kind of search as well.
I’m not here to rail against these services. Aside from cloud services (except where a new purchase forces me to use their cloud service) I have signed up for and subscribe to these services. They’re not inherently bad, and in many ways make life a little more fun in our society, and a little bit easier. I’ve had purchases suggested to me that I might not otherwise have looked for. I have a nightlight by my bed now that looks like a skull and backbone (not nearly as much detail as the advertisement showed, but kind of cool anyway) that was suggested to me. And frankly I like it. This was based on macabre purchases from the past that I often look for just because I think they’re fun. And what the hell, I’ll be dead someday anyway, so I may as well embrace it.
What I’m surprised by, though, is how people will buy into these services without really considering what it really means. To be shocked that services like Alexa is listening strikes me as odd, simply because it has to be listening to work. To be dismayed that cloud services can be accessed by others is surprising to me, because cloud services must be accessible because that’s how they work. I didn’t need these scandals to tell me that this could happen because as soon as they became available, I thought about how they work and the implications. So when they came out, frankly, I just sat back and waited for the fun wondering when the scandal would break.