A story came to light at VICE in 2017, that the CIA spied on people through their smart TVs. Without getting into those weeds, note this conventional warning offered by manufacturers: “Please be aware that if your spoken words include personal or other sensitive information, that information will be among the data captured and transmitted to a third party through your use of Voice Recognition.”
An old birdwatcher’s tip: If you can see them, assume they can see you. If the internet is wide open to us, we are potentially wide open to the internet. Here are three surveillance issues worth pondering, about the systems we take for granted:
➤ Alexa employees listen in:
Amazon.com Inc. employs thousands of people around the world to help improve the Alexa digital assistant powering its line of Echo speakers. The team listens to voice recordings captured in Echo owners’ homes and offices. The recordings are transcribed, annotated and then fed back into the software as part of an effort to eliminate gaps in Alexa’s understanding of human speech and help it better respond to commands …
The work is mostly mundane. One worker in Boston said he mined accumulated voice data for specific utterances such as “Taylor Swift” and annotated them to indicate the searcher meant the musical artist. Occasionally the listeners pick up things Echo owners likely would rather stay private: a woman singing badly off key in the shower, say, or a child screaming for help. The teams use internal chat rooms to share files when they need help parsing a muddled word—or come across an amusing recording.Matt Day, Giles Turner, and Natalia Drozdiak, “Amazon Workers Are Listening to What You Tell Alexa” at Bloomberg (April 10, 2019)
Readers must decide whether to believe that that’s all it amounts to. From The Guardian, “With microphone arrays that hear voices from across the room, Amazon’s devices would have been coveted by the Stasi in East Germany. The same can be said of smarthome products from Apple, Google and Microsoft, as well as the microphone-equipped AIs in all of our phones.” (March 26, 2019) Alexa’s privacy settings do offer the option of disabling the use of voice recordings, according to Bloomberg, but the user must take that initiative. The user will not find out how to do so from a giant pixelboard.
➤ Governments can now get around constitutional privacy protections by simply buying the data you provide big tech companies:
Agencies under the Department of Homeland Security—including Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP)—have purchased access to cellphone location activity for investigations, The Wall Street Journal reported in February. In June, the WSJ also reported that the IRS purchased access to location data through commercial databases.
Private companies can gather up, buy, sell, and trade all kinds of sensitive user data more or less however they want, with very few limitations—and they do.
All kinds of mobile apps collect location data, both legitimately and illegitimately, and then sell it to data brokers. The data brokers then pass on is theoretically anonymized—but in practice, it’s easily identifiable.Kate Cox, “Secret Service buys location data that would otherwise need a warrant” at ArsTechnica (August 17, 2020)
“Theoretically anonymized”? Your name, etc., are scrubbed out when the data is sold. But not so fast. In reality, such data is easily deanonymized because so much data is collected on you that you can probably be identified with (as of 2018) 95% accuracy, due to your patterns in mobility, spending, etc. Given enough data, it’s almost as anonymous as your fingerprint. You can usually turn off tracking devices but, as above, the industries that benefit from data collection don’t emphasize telling you how.
➤ Plagued with a high crime rate, Jackson, Mississippi, is encouraging giving police access to private door camera information:
Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said if home and business owners allow, they could give the city permission to access those cameras through the platform, and the city could use the data collected to track criminal activity, WLBT-TV reported.
Lumumba said the city would only be able to access the devices when crimes occur in those areas.
“Ultimately, what will happen is residents and businesses will be able to sign a waiver, if they want their camera to be accessed from the Real Time Crime Center,” he said. “It would save (us) from having to buy a camera for every place across the city.”AP, “Mississippi program to use door cameras to fight crime” at Associated Press
The 45-day pilot will allow Jackson law enforcement to tap into any participating residents’ or businesses’ Ring cameras in the area of a reported crime, giving them a view of entire blocks or streets, according to the Associated Press. That means that even if someone doesn’t agree to join the program, their neighbors’ Ring cameras could give cops a live feed of their homes.Dan Robitzski, “Amazon will let police livestream your ring doorbell camera” at Futurism
Amazon disclaims direct involvement, saying it is a third party operation. The program may assist in fighting crime but residents must decide whether to believe, in light of the current record, that crimefighting is all the information will be used for.
The pandemic has also spurred the development of new surveillance mechanisms. Contact tracing apps can be designed securely and privately if they don’t collect geolocation data, store personal information only locally on a user’s devices, and ideally are open source. But many of the 54 countries Freedom House studied that have implemented digital contact tracing have departed drastically from these best practices…
The overreaches go beyond contact tracing and health status apps as well. Freedom House found that the governments of at least 30 countries are taking advantage of the pandemic to specifically expand other mass surveillance capabilities, typically with the help of telecoms and tech companies.Lily Hay Newman, “Internet Freedom Has Taken a Hit During the Covid-19 Pandemic” at Wired (October 14, 2020)
Privacy may turn out to be one of the biggest political issues of the current decade.