Jeff Bezos wants to listen to you, 24/7

Alexa is listening

George Orwell warned about an all-powerful state spying on our every move; Aldous Huxley worried that consumer culture would simply lull us into happily embracing slavery. Both were right.

In China, the paranoid communist state uses high-tech to spy on its populace and condition their behaviour, like a billion Pavlov’s dogs. “Creating robots out of their own people…and that is a very frightening thing,” as Sir Roger Scruton recently observed.

Picture: ABC’s Foreign Correspondent.Source:ABC

In the West, we’re happily handing over the same creepy omniscience to Silicon Valley plutocrats.

Voice-controlled assistants are fast becoming a common feature of the modern home, but many of Alexa’s owners struggle to shake the nagging fear that they are being recorded. Now, Amazon wants to make that a reality.

The tech company has registered a patent application with the US authorities that would enable the device to continuously capture everything a person says in case it hears the word “Alexa” or another so-called wake word.

Of course the company has a “benign” explanation for their astonishing intrusiveness.

Alexa-enabled devices, such as the Amazon Echo, can only perform tasks if the word Alexa or another wake word is said at the beginning of a sentence, rather than at the end or in the middle. This means that the devices cannot understand a phrase such as: “Play some music, Alexa. The Beatles, please.”

To get round this Amazon has made a patent application, first spotted by Buzzfeed News, that would allow Alexa devices to record and store anything that is being said and then listen out for a wake word.

If a wake word is detected, Alexa would then “look backwards” over the recording to check if any command came before that word and would use any pauses in speech to determine when the command began.

The recording would then be sent to Amazon’s remote servers, while any other recordings would be stored on the device itself and promptly deleted, “thus addressing privacy concerns associated with an ‘always-on’ speech processing system”, the patent says […]

On Wednesday the company announced that it would now be easier to delete Alexa recordings that Amazon had stored with voice commands alone…owners will be able to say: “Alexa, delete everything I said today”, and the device will wipe away all of the recordings it stores on Amazon’s servers.

Maybe I’m just a big ol’ cynic, but I have a sneaking suspicion that that’s just so much horse-puckey. Government agencies, like the police, are supposed to observe such privacy protections, too: in fact, they’ve got very strict laws to regulate it. Yet, public servants have been caught accessing sensitive information of private individuals, just to get their jollies. Police have been found out keeping huge databases of fingerprints of innocent people, which were supposed to have been destroyed immediately.

Your private information is money in the bank for Big Tech: do you really trust them to flush it all down the digital toilet?

In April privacy campaigners were shocked when it was revealed that Amazon employees were listening to, transcribing and even joking about the private conversations that customers had with Alexa on their smart speakers.


I’ve asked this question before, but it bears hammering home: would you be happy with a police officer, or an employee of, say, Countdown, Fonterra or Air New Zealand sitting in the corner of your living room, recording everything you say and do? Would you even believe them if they promised, hand on heart, to delete the recordings?

Then why on earth would you let Amazon do the same?