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Alexa, Phone Joe May 28, 2018

Posted by Peter Varhol in Algorithms, Software platforms, Technology and Culture.
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By now, the story of how Amazon Alexa recorded a private conversation and sent the recording off to a colleague is well-known.  Amazon has said that the event was a highly unlikely series of circumstances that will only happen very rarely.  Further, it promised to try to adjust the algorithms so that it didn’t happen again, but no guarantees, of course.

Forgive me if that doesn’t make me feel better.  Now, I’m not blaming Amazon, or Alexa, or the couple involved in the conversation.  What this scenario should be doing is radically readjusting what our expectations of a private conversation are.  About three decades ago, there was a short-lived (I believe) reality TV show called “Children Say the Funniest Things.”  It turned out that most of the funniest things concerned what they repeated from their parents.

Well, it’s not only our children that are in the room.  It’s also Internet-connected “smart” devices that can reliably digitally record our conversations and share them around the world.  Are we surprised?  We shouldn’t be.  Did we really think that putting a device that we could talk to in the room wouldn’t drastically change what privacy meant?

Well, here we are.  Alexa is not only a frictionless method of ordering products.  It is an unimpeachable witness listening to “some” conversations in the room.  Which ones?  Well, that’s not quite clear.  There are keywords, but depending on location, volume, and accent, Alexa may hear keywords where none are intended.

And it will decide who to share those conversations with, perhaps based on pre-programmed keywords.  Or perhaps based on an AI-type natural language interpretation of a statement.  Or, most concerning, based on a hack of the system.

One has to ask if in the very near future Alexa may well be subject to a warrant in a criminal case?  Guess what, it has already happened.  And unintended consequences will continue to occur, and many of those consequences will continue to be more and more public.

We may well accept that tradeoff – more and different unintended consequences in return for greater convenience in ordering things.  I’m aware that Alexa can do more than that, and that its range of capability will only continue to expand.  But so will the range of unintended consequences.

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Alexa, Delete My Data December 25, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Software platforms, Technology and Culture.
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As we become inundated this holiday season by Amazon ads for its EchoDot voice system and Alexa artificial intelligent assistant, I confess I remain conflicted about the potential and reality of AI technology in our lives.

To be sure, the Alexa commercials are wonderful. For those of us who grew up under the influence of George Jetson (were they really only on TV for one season?), Alexa represents the realization of something that we could only dream about for the last 50+ years.  Few of us can afford a human assistant, but the intelligent virtual assistant is a reality.  The future is now!

It’s only when you think it through that it becomes more problematic. A necessary corollary to an intelligent virtual assistant is that assistant has enough data about you to recognize what are at times ambiguous instructions.  And by having that data, and current information about us, we could imagine issues with instructions like these:

“Alexa, I’m just going out for a few minutes; don’t bother setting the burglar alarm.”

“Alexa, turn the temperature down to 55 until January 15; I won’t be home.”

I’m sure that Google already has a lot of information on me. I rarely log into my Google account, but it identifies me anyway, so it knows what I search for.  And Google knows my travel photos, through Picasa.  Amazon also identifies me without logging in, but I don’t buy a lot through Amazon, so its data is less complete.  Your own mileage with these and other data aggregators may vary.

To be fair, the US government currently and in the past has been in possession of an incredible amount of information on most adults. I have held jobs and am a taxpayer; I have a driver’s license (and pilot’s license, for that matter); I am a military veteran; and I’ve held government security clearances.

I’d always believed that my best privacy protection was the fact that government databases didn’t talk to one another. The IRS didn’t know, and didn’t care, whether or not my military discharge was honorable (it was).  Yeah.  That may have been true at one time, but it is changing.  Data exchange between government agencies won’t be seamless in my lifetime, but it is heading, slowly but exorably in that direction.

And the commercial firms are far more efficient. Google and Facebook today know more about us than anyone might imagine.  Third party data brokers can make our data show up in the strangest places.

And lest you mistake me, I’m not saying that this is necessarily a bad thing. There are tradeoffs in every action we take.  Rather, it’s something that we let happen without thinking about it.  We can come up with all sorts of rationalizations on why we love the convenience and efficiency, but rarely ponder the other side of the coin.

I personally try to think about the implications every time I release data to a computer, and sometimes decline to do so (take that, Facebook). And in some cases, such as my writings and conference talks, I’ve made career decisions that I am well aware make more data available on me.  I haven’t yet decided on Alexa, but I am certainly not going to be an early adopter.

Update: Oh my. http://www.cnn.com/2016/12/28/tech/amazon-echo-alexa-bentonville-arkansas-murder-case-trnd/index.html