Buy this new device, and spy on yourself

20 Jun 2017

Privacy advocates buzz with scorn over televisions that listen in on conversations and sell the data they've scraped to third parties. Recently, a respected headphone manufacturer was busted for the same thing—a US-based consumer filed a lawsuit claiming that using their app tracks the audio customers listen to, and violates their privacy rights by selling that information without permission.

It doesn't take a technoboffin to understand that private information should remain private. Leakage of sensitive personal information can lead to everything from irked spouses to identity theft.

So why on Earth would a Netizen pay to install a bugging device in their own home?

It's fashionable!

Amazon seems to think you should—because you want to be fashionable, right? Otherwise all your likes on social media might be wasted, and we can't have that. All your likes are belong to us!

Amazon now pushes its line of Echo audio-monitoring products, powered by the Alexa voice assistant (if the latter sounds familiar, it's because Amazon owes popular website-ranking site—they also own IMdB where you can learn all about movies that you can buy...from Amazon).

Full disclosure: I've used Amazon as an online shopping service since 1998, and I can view ALL my orders back to that first one when I log in. Nowadays I'm more partial to, whose shipping policies are more globally friendly. Amazon is now more complex than a rainforest, and does boffo business with its Amazon World Services cloud biz.

But I'm not buying this thing as I don't shout at devices. Worse, the "Echo Look Hands-Free Camera and Style Assistant" has a built-in camera for selfies. Is this thing aimed at insecure teenagers? "Selfie, look, buy, repeat"?

But wait, what's this new thing from Apple?

The iRoll

The best thing about installing Apple's latest iteration of iOS is pressing the "Don't Use Siri" dialog-box. I guess I'm not the only one who doesn't yell at their mobile phone.

But then WWDC comes around and Apple announces a bunch of new stuff. How about more standard USB ports on their laptops? Maybe a return to their MagSafe power-adapter: that magic magnetically attached cable which has saved innumerable Apple laptops from spontaneous destruction?

Nope, none of that stuff. Instead, Apple introduced the HomePod—an Echo-like device that works using, you guessed it, Siri. Apple, who ditched the standard 3.5mm headphone-jack from their latest phone ("It comes down to one word," said Apple's SVP of worldwide marketing Phil Schiller, "Courage," when announcing the scrapping of the beloved standard jack onstage), is getting into the game with the HomePod.

The device has six built-in microphones, so it's easy to imagine its use as a field-recording or video-conferencing device. But Apple's pitching it as a home music player, fueled by (you guessed it again) Apple Music. Forget Spotify or your vinyl collection.

The device is a mesh cylinder...about the size of a roll of toilet paper. Or, with its rounded corners, a cylindrical yarn-spool. The mesh cover means cats might be delighted with their new scratching-post. Of course the internet is having Big Fun with these comparisons.

OK, let's get serious here. These two firms aren't the only ones with voice-controlled "assistants" (hint: a firm whose slogan was "do no evil" has one too), and Amazon urges other manufacturers to adopted Alexa as the voice-recognition standard in their devices.


"The question of how much privacy we can reasonably expect when installing a home assistant is complex and unresolved, wrote Brian Heater in a TechCrunch article earlier this year. "People who buy an Echo know what they’re getting themselves into [as] they’ve purchased an internet-connected device, with built-in microphones, that is designed (in some sense) to always be listening—and it’s created by companies that thrive on tailoring ads based on the boatloads of data they collect from users."

Always listening. Boatloads of data. "But once a user consents by introducing such a device into their home," writes Heater, "are its manufacturers bound by law to only record and store the information their products were designed to act upon? Or has the consumer effectively waived those rights?"

I'm not the first person to suggest that data privacy is now a commodity, like private physical security. Wealthy people can live in gated communities, install alarms, hire security guards, etc. Is this what the Internet will become: the wealthy hire online security firms, and have personal white-hat hackers on call to manage their online communications? Will privacy become a commodity?

Regardless, the idea of purchasing a device to plug into your home wireless network to listen in on you is something even George Orwell never posited in his book "1984." Neither did any of the USA's "three-letter" government agencies or East Germany's Stasi ever anticipate that citizens would willingly install audio and video "bugging devices" in their own homes.

If you want to do that, go ahead. But don't come looking to me for sympathy if your cats claw the thing to shreds.

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