Alexa Knows It All

By Valerie Andrews

Now that everyone’s mad about Alexa, here comes the bad news.  Our smart-home digital helpers aren’t manna from the gods — they’re here to steal our data and our privacy.   Today’s technology prods us into buying things by eavesdropping on our personal conversations. And when we purchase smart devices like Amazon’s Alexa, we give marketers 24/7 access to everything we say and do at home.

As The New York Times reported in 2018: In one set of patent applications, Amazon describes how a “voice sniffer algorithm” could be used on an array of devices, like tablets and e-book readers, to analyze audio almost in real time when it hears words like “love,” bought” or “dislike.” A diagram included with the application illustrated how a phone call between two friends could result in one receiving an offer for the San Diego Zoo and the other seeing an ad for a Wine of the Month Club membership.  

All this listening is big business.

In 2018, the smart home market was valued at $36 billion and may reach $151 billion by 2023.  Alexa and her friends are hives of information. Companies  collect all sorts of information from our TVs, ovens, fitness trackers, and beds. Their products can turn on lights, lock doors, grant access to secure rooms and trigger video and audio recordings.  But who controls this flow of information and how secure is it?

To find out, we’d have to review about a thousand  legal contracts.  Thank goodness former Harvard Business School professor Shoshana Zuboff  did that sleuthing for us.  In her new book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism she explores the commercialization of the home and our new dependence on AI.

How We Lost Our Privacy

Photo by Ihor Saveliev on Unsplash

Google invented home-centered AI and perfected surveillance capitalism, then  Amazon and a slew of other tech companies jumped on the bandwagon. But how did we agree to be the guinea pigs for this new industry?

 In the wake of 9/11 Americans began to worry more about personal security, and while AI offered us 24-hour surveillance, it also fed our desire for ease and comfort.  (You can now sit on the couch with your bowl of chips as you ask Alexa to change the channel, start the roast, and entertain your kids.)  The trouble is we’ve grown used to Alexa’s constant coddling with no idea of the consequences.   

As Zuboff warns, we aren’t just asking a user-friendly modem to hit the dimmer or play our favorite song.  We’re giving up control of our surroundings. One byte at a time.

Awhile ago, my friends Mary and Bruce sat down to dinner and started talking about an upcoming trip to Denver. She would need a new pair of walking shoes, and before they left, there was a film they had to see.   Ads for both the shoes and the movie showed up the next day on their computer screens.  “We’ve started turning our devices off when want to have a private conversation. We’ve been totally spooked by this kind of eavesdropping!”

Today tech companies mine our conversations and map our buying habits, then nudge us to the point of purchase.  And they’ll close the deal anyway they can. 

When Alexa is listening, you must be careful what you wish for!   

An idle comment, “Boy I sure would like a new set of golf clubs,” might translate into a call from a contractor who can build you the best at-home putting green.  And if you say, “Alexa, turn the volume up,” you might get a call the next day about a better hearing aid.  

Yup, Alexa is our new domestic spy. 

The High Cost of Being Connected

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

 In 2007 Facebook launched Beacon, letting advertisers track users’ purchasing habits on the Internet. Jonathan Treen bought an engagement ring on Overstock, intending to propose to his girlfriend on New Year’s eve. Suddenly he got a flurry of congratulations from family and friends. Overstock had published details of his purchase, adding a  link to the item and its price on his public newsfeed. His girlfriend saw it,  the surprise was ruined, and the whole occasion reduced to where he shopped and what he spent.  

This story gives new meaning to the term “home invasion.”

Facebook shut down Beacon in 2009 and has since relaunched it, without allowing advertisers this kind of overreach. Yet Smart Home technology is now in its early shake-down phase, gathering as much of our personal information as it can. 

The state of California recently passed a law prohibiting smart TVs from collecting voice data without “prominently informing customers”  and outlawed use of such data for third party advertising. Other states are considering this type of legislation now.  The problem, Zuboff says, is that these devices know everything about us, while we know nothing about them.  

Without transparency, tech companies will do what they do best: keeping prying into our domestic lives.

There will be practical problems, too, once all these smart devices are connected.  Samsung’s new home ecosystem, designed to capture your every spoken command, supports thousands of devices — fans, lights thermostats, locks, security services.  It’s remarkably efficient but what happens when the power grid is down?  We could find ourselves locked in or out, or unable to call for help in an emergency. Not a happy thought. 

Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash

Zuboff considers all the forces that made this kind of spying profitable, from the rise of market economies and neoliberalism to  the blank check given to our new technologies. But she is at her most eloquent when she talks about the sanctity of home. 

From the beginning of life, home provides us with a sense of safety and security, shapes our imagination, and forges our first experience of love and  intimacy.  It provides  a much needed respite from stress of work and the demands of public life.  And it also serves as the foundation of our memories.  Zuboff shares how she struggled to recover them when she lost her dwelling in a fire:

“In the months and years that followed, my recollections of the house took an unexpected shape, less rooms and objects than shadow, light and fragrances.  I conjured in perfect clarity the rush of my mother’s scent when I opened the drawer filled with her once cherished scarves. I closed my eyes and saw the late-afternoon sun slicing through the velvety air by the bedroom fireplace with its ancient sloping mantle where our treasures were on display: a photo of my father and me, heads tilted toward each other blending our two shocks of curly black hair; the miniature painted enamel boxes, discovered in a Parisian flea market…which became the shelter for our children’s milk-teeth huddled like secret caches of seed pearls.

“It was impossible to explain the quality of this sadness and longing; how ourselves and the life of our family had evolved symbiotically with those spaces that we called home.  How our attachments transformed a house into a hallowed place of love, meaning and commemoration.”

Zuboff ends with a compelling message:  Hold on to your stories. Don’t let your relationships be turned into marketing opportunities, your dreams and desires discussed as data points. Home is the place we discover who we are.  

It was meant to be the R&D for our humanity.


Valerie Andrews is the founder and Chief Storyteller of Reinventing Home. 

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