Strong Opinions Weakly Held OR The Day I Bought Two Echo Devices

by about Law, Security in Technosocial

Hello, I have an order for I.C. Wiener.

This talk gives an introduction to voice recognition and the threats it poses to privacy and security. It explains where machine learning can be applied to your data and how voices can be imitated with sufficient data as well as “simple” identity theft by playing back a recorded voice.

Fun stuff. The above is the talk abstract I submitted to PrivacyWeek. My talk in German can be found on the CCC website. I’m a bit of a privacy nut and care about data protection. Up until a few days ago I was lecturing people asking them how they can even think of buying a device like Amazon’s Echo when there are such privacy concerns involved.

Cropped picture of Sanja giving a talk at the PrivacyWeek in 2017

Yesterday I received two Amazon Echo Show devices because my brother bought an Echo Show for our parents and it snowballed from there. Now we’re all able to drop into each other’s homes (virtually). Sounds like some horrible surveillance family life but it’s mostly a convenient way for three young kids to stay connected with each other and the rest of the core family.

Following family tradition, at first I complained and explained all my very valid principles when I heard that my brother is going to buy such a monstrosity for our parents.

Then I saw my son really enjoying the fart generator and the ability to drop in (read: video call) on his cousins. It is really hard to stay serious and keep people on track when Alexa can fart and tell perfectly sophisticated jokes like this.

What’s Yoda’s favourite dinosaur? The do-ceratops. There is no tri-!

Wow. Obviously, after this I decided to buy two because you get a discount if you buy two instead of one. Just take this coupon code Amazon throws at you - so easy. In addition, it’s kind of convenient to have one in different rooms. Thanks, Amazon! As my brother so eloquently puts it:

You’re now the role model for how easy it is to sacrifice privacy for convenience.

That’s what family is for - to always remind us of our failures. He is right, though. I sacrificed privacy for convenience. I’m perfectly aware of the security and privacy intrusion and first things first: I need webcam stickers to cover the webcams so that (malicious and other) intruders cannot hijack it. The microphone stays a problem because you want it enabled so that you can tell Alexa what music you’d like to hear with its really good sound that enabled me to give away my previous sound system and therefore save space.

Where do we go from here? ▲ Back to top

Personally, I have to accept that you can’t just advocate for not using ubiquitous devices. That’s like telling people not to use their phones because they can be tracked or not to make pictures because lots of personal information about them is saved in the EXIF metadata.

Instead, we have to advocate for better laws and regulations as well as making sure that companies cannot sell our data to anyone or use it for any other than its initial purpose. Just waiving away our rights with accepting terms and conditions is not the way to go. GDPR is a step in the right direction but it’s not yet the solution and it’s only for EU citizens.

There are data brokers and individual companies out there selling our data and we are unable to ensure that this data is anonymised and cannot be traced back to us. It does not even have to be one bad company, it can be just one bad actor within an otherwise reasonable company. Let’s make sure we keep on track and do not just let corporations go with the flow when it comes to our personal identity and related data they are collecting on us.

<mostly unregulated data collection device>, stop.