Weekly Feature

2018-02-14 / Editorials

‘Alexa, do you share my information with others?’

Managing Editor

While I am not much of a technophobe, I gradually move into the present day from time to time so that I can both keep up with the times and feel like I am just as cool as the other guys.

So I was surprised when I received an Amazon Echo Dot from my sister-in-law last Christmas. I had considered buying a similar device for my wife and even inquired about it in person at a big box retailer. There were three options. None seemed appropriate for asking basic questions (knowing that answers can easily be found elsewhere) and playing music required additional payments.

Thankfully the kids were around during the intimidating setup process. I played dumb; it was easy.

Asking Alexa a few simple things was fun. Then we started to hear some talk about how these devices allegedly gather information about your ordinary household habits, possibly to share them somehow with other Internet destinations.

Partly because of that, and partly because my father always told to us to unplug any electronic devices if we were not using them, Alexa was temporarily out of commission. I missed her a bit at first, but as I said, the bulk of the information I require either scrolls across the bottom of the TV, lies waiting in Twitter, or lies dormant until the 11 o’clock news.

But last week, a lengthy article was posted by Gizmodo.com. Titled “The house that spied on me,” it was shared via social media by Bill Gray, deputy communications director for Issue One Reform, “A nonpartisan ‘org’ dedicated to political reform and government ethics in order to strengthen democracy and return government to the American people.” The article’s authors are Kashmir Hill and Surya Mattu.

“In December, I converted my one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco into a ‘smart home,’” wrote Hill. “I connected as many of my appliances as I could to the internet: an Amazon Echo, my lights, my coffee maker, my baby monitor, my kid’s toys, my vacuum, my TV, my toothbrush, a photo frame and even my bed.”

Her husband stated that the whole thing seemed very creepy.

“I soon discovered that the only thing worse than getting a bad night’s sleep is to subsequently get a report from my bed telling me I ‘missed my sleep goal,’” she added.

“As a result of the apartment upgrade, I could watch what was happening in the house when we weren’t there. I could use voice commands to turn on the lights, coffee maker, and music. I could exchange voice messages with our toddler (and her caregiver) through a toy. I got reminders from my toothbrush to brush and tips on how best to do it,” Hill continued. In the final analysis, it may not have been a good idea.

The company that sold her the internet-connected vacuum, for example, recently said that it collects a “rich map of the home” and plans to one day share it with Apple, Amazon, or Alphabet, the three companies that hope to dominate the smart home market.

“Once I made my home smart, what would it learn and whom would it tell?” she pondered.

“When you buy a smart device, it doesn’t just belong to you; you share custody with the company that made it.”

The other night, I plugged the Dot back in and after checking the weather, asked, “Alexa, do you share my information with others?”

“I don’t have that answer,” she replied.

(David F. Sherman is managing editor of Bee Group Newspapers and a columnist for the Weekly Independent Newspapers of Western New York, a group of community newspapers with a combined circulation of 286,500 readers. Opinions expressed here are those of the author. He can be reached at dsherman@beenews.com.)

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