In late January 2017, a 69-year-old book found itself at the top of Amazon’s bestseller list. The book was 1984 by George Orwell, first published in 1948.
For those who haven’t read it, 1984 is a dystopian novel about a future society—now past society—called Oceania, in which a single-party state wields unimaginable power, “for its own sake,” over all of its citizens. The book’s surge in popularity came after certain remarks surrounding the presidential inauguration.
Contesting the size of the Inauguration Day crowd, Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, remarked that a spokesman for the president gave “alternative facts” when he said that the event drew “the largest audience to witness an inauguration, period. Both in person and around the globe.”
Conway’s comments immediately drew widespread criticism and scrutiny, with one Washington Post reporter calling her words a “George Orwell phrase.” In 1984, Orwell coined the phrase doublethink, which means accepting two contradictory beliefs at the same time.
Virtually overnight, sales of 1984 increased nearly 10,000 percent.
Big Brother is watching us.
In the novel, Oceania is led by Big Brother, a handsome man in his mid-40s. From the text, it’s unclear whether Big Brother is a real person or if he’s simply a tool of the state, or the Party, to keep its citizens in line.
Either way, Big Brother closely monitors the people of Oceania through the use of “telescreens” to ensure they don’t break the law. The citizens live in a constant state of surveillance, and anyone who even attempts to resist the government’s directives are dealt with swiftly and quietly. Since the novel’s publication, Big Brother has become a buzzword for any time a government attempts to curtail civil liberties.
Orwell foresaw the proliferation of television screens by a number of years—it’s doubtful, however, that he could have predicted just how willingly, and thoroughly, people of future societies would choose to surround themselves with devices that are capable of recording their every move. We’re now 34 years past the year 1984, and some would argue that Orwell was more prescient than we could have thought.
In 2018, we have access to screens, microphones, and speakers on our laptops, our phones, our watches, televisions, and refrigerators. Some of our most mundane “smart” devices are all at risk from hackers who want to steal our valuable information—yes, even the fridge is at risk, hackers found out at at the 2015 DEF CON hacking conference.
And now, with the rise of the home “smart speaker” market, we’re deliberately bringing tiny surveillance machines into our homes, where they’re always listening…but not.
The Rise of Alexa
One of the most prevalent smart speakers to come along in recent years is the Amazon Echo. The Echo debuted in late 2014, first as a simple speaker that played music with verbal commands. But as Amazon’s “digital assistant,” Alexa, gained greater functionality, the Echo became capable of many other things.
Now, the Echo can control your living room lights, your bedroom thermostat, give you the daily weather report, or order things for your kids on Amazon. The most recent iteration of the device, the Echo Show, incorporates—you guessed it—a screen for video calling and browsing web videos.
The Echo is fast becoming one of the most widely-used smart devices on the market. In November 2017, Amazon said in a statement that they had sold millions of Amazon devices between Thanksgiving and Cyber Monday. “We’re excited that tens of millions of customers around the world will be using Alexa to prepare for the holidays,” said Dave Limp, senior vice president for Amazon Devices and Services.
Perhaps most telling of all, the same release lists some of the most popular data received from those millions of devices, like the most popular named timers on Thanksgiving Day—number one was “turkey”— and which Amazon Music playlist was the most listened to.
When They’re Listening, When They’re Not
The fact that Amazon has this data—as well as the rise of such devices—has brought with it important questions about the nature of privacy and security in the modern era. But some of these concerns, like the fact that bringing home an Echo is equivalent to willingly bugging your home on behalf of Amazon, may be unfounded.
“Amazon isn’t listening at all times in your home,” says Robert Graham, CEO of Errata Security, a cybersecurity consulting company based in Atlanta, Georgia. “They’re only listening once you trigger the device.”
Ask Alexa if she’s always listening—she’ll give you a helpful, albeit indirect, answer: “I only send audio back to Amazon when I hear you say the wake word. For more information, and to view Amazon’s privacy notice, visit the help section of your Alexa app.”
The way it works is this: The Echo is equipped with a buffer that records the last two seconds of all audio it hears. In that sense, Alexa is always listening. But “it keeps overriding that buffer and not sending it anywhere,” says Graham, unless you say the magic words.
“Wake words” or “trigger words” are the verbal commands devices need to hear—“Alexa,” “Okay, Google,” or “Hey Siri,” for example—to wake up and start recording your request.
The devices do sometimes get triggered unintentionally. “If you’re watching a TV show,” says Graham. “Sometimes, Alexa [hears] what’s said on TV, and that triggers them, and they’ll try to process the information.”
Regardless, that “awake” audio then gets saved and sent to the company that owns the device. The company then uses that data to improve the device’s functionality—the help section of your Alexa app will tell you as much.
“It’s a theoretical danger; it’s not really listening to everything you say and recording everything you say” Graham says. “It’s not that there’s no danger, but it’s not quite the danger people might be scared of.”
Still, some people do fear that the government is tapping the devices. They fear Big Brother. In 2016, Matt Novak of PaleoFuture claimed to have contacted the FBI asked if they’d ever tapped an Amazon Echo. The FBI replied that they couldn’t, by law, answer that.
We may never know how much Big Brother is watching—or listening. We do know that the data has been seized before. In one of the most high-profile criminal cases surrounding these devices, Arkansas police asked Amazon to turn over the Echo data from a potential violent criminal in the hopes it might prove the man guilty.
Graham confirms that once your recorded data is sent to the tech company, there are no privacy rights involved. “The government doesn’t even need a warrant to get this information, because it’s third-party information,” he says. “Legally, there’s not really a privacy angle here…the Fourth Amendment only protects things that are private to you.”
“Once you share information with Amazon, it’s no longer private by definition, according to the government. So therefore the Fourth Amendment doesn’t apply.”
On the other hand, Graham adds that the information is often so bad he can’t see how it could be of any help to law enforcement. “I can’t imagine how the government would use it against me, other than knowing my penchant for frequently asking for Bitcoin prices.”
Who can be trusted, and when?
The question, then, is how much do consumers trust these tech companies with their recorded information?
Brooklyn resident Murph Holder received her Echo Dot as a gift from her mother after Amazon Prime Day in May 2017. She says her primary use for the device is as a cooking timer.
“It just helps me when I’m cooking several different things,” she says. “To be able to have one timer set for the brussel sprouts in the oven, one timer set for the sausage on the stove…I just tell it, and it can name the timer, and it goes off.”
Holder also frequently asks the device for a daily digest of weather updates, her subway line status, and a New York Times news brief. “That plays for about ten minutes as I put my makeup on,” she says.
Holder says that while the fact that her Echo is always listening does concern her, she doesn’t feel like it’s any different than any other device she owns. “I think that we’re naive to think that this is the only way that someone is listening to us,” she says.
“At least this way, I know and I can say, ‘Well, my Amazon Echo actually has guidelines associated with it’…maybe that’s a false comfort to me. [But] it doesn’t bother me because I’ve just always assumed there are things about our government that we probably don’t know, and nothing’s going on over here untoward.”
However, she admits that she hasn’t given a lot of thought to these concerns—or read the device’s license agreement in depth.
What many fear, more than Big Brother, are data breaches—when internet sleuths crack a code and wind up with thousands of peoples’ information. In 2017, consumer credit reporting agency Equifax suffered a data breach that laid bare the sensitive information of 143 million Americans, according to the Federal Trade Commission. In 2016, stat recorder Statista counted 1,093 data breaches in the US; ten years earlier, there were 321.
Holder says she has been caught in the crossfire of multiple widespread security breaches at health insurance companies and other important institutions in the past. These experiences have influenced her outlook on what data she can control.
“The things that I felt were super secure, I had no choice. They had my information,” she says. “So in that way, I’ve kind of got my hands in the air going, well, those people let my data out. At least my Roomba doesn’t have my social security number.”
The future that Orwell foresaw in 1984 may not have arrived yet. But the less we pay attention to the potential risks of our technology, the closer we come to it being a reality.
When asked why people are so quick to adopt these devices into their homes knowing the risks they pose, even if they’re small, Holder says that people often choose convenience over security. They also often believe, perhaps falsely, that nothing bad involving these technologies could ever involve them.
“While I know that it’s listening and I know that things could happen, deep down in my heart, I don’t think that it would ever affect me,” she says. “And dang it, I haven’t burned any sweet potato fries since I got it.”