Amazon’s Alexa: Friend or Foe?
The first time I met Alexa she was perched seductively on a granite countertop beside an oozy Brie, some smoked oysters, and a bottle of white wine. She was belting out a selection of Helen Reddy songs I was embarrassed to admit I knew the words to but hadn’t heard since the ‘70s. Frankly, I hadn’t realized Helen Reddy was still alive.
Though mildly impressed with this new smart device, I didn’t give her much thought. I didn’t use Siri on my iPhone and I surely wasn’t going to invest in another talking personal assistant. Then Alexa showed up on my front porch one Friday in a cardboard box, a gift from my stepmother Betty.
I’ll admit it; she charmed me pretty darn quickly. As a writer, I enjoyed having a quirky librarian at my side to provide definitions and spellings and to search Wikipedia for facts and information. As a music lover, I was excited about my own personal deejay creating playlists of my favorite acts like James Brown and the Rolling Stones. On these tasks Alexa did not disappoint. Heck, she even shuffled up a fine mix of songs by Bobby Lounge, a piano player who writes salacious story songs about the South.
My infatuation began to wane, however, when I asked if she thought Donald Trump would be impeached and she refused to answer, telling me instead that he would make a decision soon on whether or not he would pull the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Accord. Hmm… I already knew that. Alexa then claimed she couldn’t suggest cocktail recipes for a leftover bottle of cheap tequila, yet proffered up 55 recipes for a Bloody Mary—advice I most definitely did not need. When I inquired if Jared Kushner might enjoy a good spanking for his Russia dealings, she coyly replied she’d rather not answer that. Alexa was pivoting, deflecting, and feigning ignorance like the best of the Trump cabal.
Then it came to my attention that Alexa isn’t just a chanteuse singing my favorite songs or providing synonyms for words I overuse. Au contraire. Alexa nefariously listens and records what you ask her of her and then reports it to her real owner—Amazon.com—where it is all stored away in some big cloud.
This kind of eavesdropping is how Alexa got entangled in an Arkansas murder case involving two men who spent a night together drinking vodka and watching college football. One ended up dead in a hot tub the next morning with a blood-alcohol content level of .32. A tragic accident said the defense attorney. Foul play claimed the prosecutor, pointing to signs like body injuries, a broken shot glass, dried blood, and indications the patio and hot tub had been hosed down before police arrived. Seems Alexa had been there the whole time.
The Arkansas prosecutor wanted access to Alexa’s recordings. Amazon said no way, citing protection under the First Amendment, and claiming voice-activated listening devices always on in one’s home raised a different set of privacy issues than computers and cell phones, which are regularly confiscated in criminal investigations. Before this interesting new Constitutional argument could be tested in the courts, the defendant gave Amazon permission to release the data Alexa had recorded. The case is still pending.
Supposedly, Alexa only records what you ask her, but who really knows. She lights up and blinks every time the ice rattles in my cocktail glass. But she’s not the only one. Google records each search you make and each email you send. Security cameras track your every move and most of the time you aren’t even aware of it. Drug stores remember what we buy and offer us coupons. Intuit helps you file your taxes. Facebook analytics combine my likes and my friends’ likes in order to promote products like shorts that won’t require me to wear underwear. I could go on, but I’ll end by reminding everyone that for the most part we readily give up our privacy for convenience. Former FBI Director James Comey said it best when he announced there is no such thing as absolute privacy in America.
When I stop and think about the possibilities, it does sort of remind me of that scene from 1984 where Winston stops performing his morning calisthenics for a little daydreaming and is snapped back to reality by a sharp voice yelling out to him out from the telescreen to pay attention and touch his toes. Freedom is slavery! Big Brother is watching! Maybe crazy Kellyanne Conway isn’t so crazy after all. I mean, if a plastic cylinder named Alexa can be designed to spy on you why not a microwave oven?
Rich Barnett is the author of The Discreet Charms of a Bourgeois Beach Town, and Fun with Dick and James. More from Rich Barnett.