Before starting, let me say this: the line between practical and creepy is a thin one. To see just where that line lies, we look to our favorite virtual wholesale distributor, Amazon. In the 21st century, giving up increasing amounts of privacy for the sake of convenience has never gone so unquestioned.
Ever noticed how your Amazon homepage is filled with recommendations about products you might like, sometimes with eerie accuracy? That’s no accident, as you may have suspected. When you shop on Amazon, and this is an increasingly common phenomenon on any website, you are, likely unwittingly, offering up all kinds of information about yourself. Your browsing history, search queries, reviews and ratings, and even buttons left unclicked are all among the data subject to Amazon’s long-term collection. We’re lazy consumers, and the more Amazon can steer us toward goods in the infinite marketplace that are up our alley, it’s all good.
But how about letting them past our IP addresses and information doled out over the internet. How about letting Amazon techs into our homes?
You may have heard, but that’s already been done. You may have heard about, or even own, Amazon’s Echo, the all-knowing personal assistant we address fondly as ‘Alexa’.
You may also have heard that Alexa is a modern-day Santa Claus, a cylindrical demi-god cooked up in one of Amazon’s labs. She hears you when you’re sleeping, she knows when you’re awake…
Really, she does.
Whatever happened to ‘what you do behind closed doors is your business, as long as you’re not hurting anyone’? The personal story of one Guardian reporter, when coupled with some fair questions and facts, illuminates how cleverly we have been lulled into giving up in-home privacy.
‘Several weeks into testing the device, my wife and I were chatting in the kitchen when Alexa glowed into life and barged into the conversation with what sounded like a rebuke. “That’s not very nice to say.”
Baffled, we fell silent. Alexa did not elaborate. The silence deepened. “What?” I stammered.
“What was not very nice to say?” Alexa said nothing.
I followed my instinct – which was to placate the machine. “Alexa,” I said, “I’m sorry if I offended you. I don’t know why, but I’m sorry.” No response.
Had resentment been simmering? My endless commands to do this, do that, speak up, shut up – had they snapped Alexa’s patience?’ (The Guardian)
The interaction was harmless enough, the author of the article imagining some Amazon techs in some Seattle warehouse giggling at their ability to bring a man into his beta state so easily. But then, this scenario, along with similar ones, led the author to more serious thought, and more earnest questions.
‘What was the etiquette for interacting with Alexa? And, more importantly, what was happening to all the data sucked into that black cylinder? Such questions grow more urgent as we fill our homes – and bodies – with sensor-studded, actuating surveillance robots.’
Then, another human-robot interaction reinforced the question: how much of our daily conversations was Alexa really catching? It’s not like the tech companies, or the government for that matter, haven’t lied to us about issues of privacy before. And it only got creepier from there.
‘A few days after my wife and I discussed babies, my Kindle showed an advertisement for Seventh Generation diapers. We had not mooched for baby products on Amazon or Google. Maybe we had left digital tracks somewhere else? Even so, it felt creepy. Quizzed, the little black obelisk in the corner shrugged off any connection. “Hmm, I’m afraid I can’t answer that.”
Ellen Ullman, a writer and computer programmer in San Francisco, sounded much more worried. The more the internet penetrates your home, car or body, the greater the danger, she said. “The boundary between the outside world and the self is penetrated. And the boundary between your home and the outside world is penetrated.”’
Maybe you are comfortable with your questions and conversations being collected by Amazon, to what extent you cannot know for sure. Good on ya’, as the Aussies say. But something about it all seems invasive. Go ahead and buy the Amazon Echo Show, which in Telescreen-like fashion can watch you too. You’ve given up this much privacy, why not give up more? Get a Microsoft Cortana as well, because soon the devices will be able to communicate your information, and presumably share it between each parent company, and god knows who else. Ask yourself just how much you value your private conversations including romantic spats, political views, information about your children, etc.
But, it’s all so convenient!
And, if Amazon’s Echo, Echo Show, and the Microsoft Cortana don’t represent a deep enough penetration into private lives and thought processes, the retail giant now wants to penetrate your home, quite literally. Data, conversation, and video collection is one thing. Giving Amazon control over the actual lock to your home is another.
Yes, it has many benefits. Package theft prevention, a method to remotely let in not only Amazon deliverymen, but also other people who need to access your home while you are at work primary among its perks.
Call me archaic, paranoid, resistant to change, or overly skeptical. You’re probably not wrong.
But tell me that the idea of a lock controlled through Amazon, which could presumably be unlocked at any time and is monitored by a camera also created by Amazon, doesn’t feel like a slippery slope. The Amazon lock will allow for Amazon delivery men to open it at their discretion. What if you were getting out of the shower, or engaging in some spontaneous intimacy?
Consider also that the Amazon camera, supposedly for your own security and safety of mind, may be able to capture everyone coming in and out of your home. Do we have a guarantee that Amazon will never be contracting such technology, the camera and control of the lock, out to government entities?
This tweet pretty much sums up those who just feel uncomfortable with the pace at which we are allowing a monstrously powerful private company further and further into our lives and homes.
Again, there’s no evidence that Amazon has used any of our information for malevolent means. It’s completely up to us whether we deem the benefits of the Amazon Key as greater than some conceivable flaw or potential for misuse.
But there’s something to be said about knowing that you, and you alone, can lock and unlock your door. There’s something to be said about the old-fashioned way of doing things. And there’s something to be said about security over convenience. Even if that means the occasional stolen package.