By Steve Murch
I’m not a fatalist, a conspiracy theorist, a doomsday prepper or any other person expecting the worst. In general I’m rather optimistic (politics aside).
Do you ever wonder if we truly are better off with all the technology we have? I ask because it seems we can’t go very long without this story or that story coming out about how much our lives are infringed upon by technology, and more specifically technology companies.
We’ve all heard what seems likes endless stories about Facebook and the influences that come through the tech company or are handled by the company. Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram … is there a social media company that hasn’t been accused of or found to be using personal data collected?
Last month, Bloomberg News reported that Amazon employees working in other countries and in the U.S. were listening to Echo systems, you know Alexa, after users intentionally or inadvertently woke the system with a certain word or phrase. The workers then transcribed and annotated the conversations so Alexa could better understand human speech patterns.
Anyone who believes that raise your hand. I ask you: why does Alexa need to better understand human speech patterns if it already understands all the commands?
A spokesman for Amazon told Bloomberg that it takes customers’ privacy and security seriously and the company only annotates a small sample to enhance the customer experience. He said the employees don’t have direct access to customer information and the information is treated with “high confidentiality.”
Gee, that makes it all better. There’s no way someone would hack the system to access the information. Everything’s forgiven Amazon.
However (again) …
You say, what real harm is there if Alexa picks up the user asking to play a person’s favorite music or preheat the oven? None. Except how do we know how much is being recorded and how long it records the person speaking?
I say picture this: You’re on the phone and Alexa unwittingly comes on thanks to a key word. You’re talking to your credit card company and have to give your card number and Social Security number. Alexa records it. Hmm, still feeling there is no harm? Obviously a worst case scenario, but still a bit unsettling.
No company that employs hundreds of people is immune to making a bad hire and bringing on someone who is a bit unscrupulous – if not completely unscrupulous. To top it off, these employees who are listening to Alexa recordings are in countries like India, Costa Rica and Romania as well as the United States. So how well do you think the vetting process is when hiring? We haven’t even discussed the prospect of hackers.
Now, I like technology and embrace it when it will make my life more enjoyable. I do not have an Echo system because I have a small house and, quite frankly, don’t see the need for it. Therefore I needn’t worry about another case of Big Brother checking in on me. (For the record, I’m also not on any social media aside from Twitter and sometimes I contemplate leaving there.)
We already live in an age where it seems like everyone is collecting data on us and either using it to manipulate our purchases or influencing how we think, all without our knowledge. At some point we are going to be tracked every step of our lives, it’s inevitable.
Maybe I do have a little conspiracy theorist or doomsday fatalist in me.
Steve Murch is a former managing editor and award-winning columnist for The Alpena News. He’s a lifelong Michigan resident, a broken and defeated fan of the Detroit Lions and a forever optimistic fan of the Detroit Tigers. His column will appear most Thursdays.