Far too often, those willing to trade their privacy for convenience are quick to dismiss the lessons of George Orwell’s seminal dystopian novel 1984.
For many, the 1949 novel described nothing more than an entertaining fantasy story where society has allowed tyranny to rise and corral us all, a la Big Brother. For others, however, there is a prophetic characteristic to the novel that would never have been possible in Orwell’s wildest dreams…all thanks to the exponential rise of modern technology.
Orwell himself almost certainly would have rolled over in his grave upon the introduction of devices such as Google Home and Amazon Alexa; personal “assistants” that are little more than wiretapping devices used to convey your consumer habits back to the people who direct your online spending.
And while there have been plenty of concerns over the use of these gadgets before, the latest map of data exploitation is something to behold.
In an op-ed originally published at The Washington Times, Geoffrey Fowler took a look at all of the “smart” devices in his home, what they were recording, and where that data went, after beginning with just his Amazon Alexa.
Inspired by what I found in my Alexa voice archive, I wondered: What other activities in my smart home are tech companies recording?
I found enough personal data to make even the East German secret police blush.
When I’m up for a midnight snack, Google knows. My Nest thermostat, made by Google, reports back to its servers’ data in 15-minute increments about not only the climate in my house, but also whether there’s anyone moving around (as determined by a presence sensor used to trigger the heat). You can delete your account, but otherwise Nest saves it indefinitely.
Then there are lights, which can reveal what time you go to bed and do almost anything else. My Philips Hue-connected lights track every time they’re switched on and off – data the company keeps forever if you connect to its cloud service (which is required to operate them with Alexa or Assistant).
It gets even more invasive…
Every kind of appliance now is becoming a data-collection device. My Chamberlain MyQ garage opener lets the company keep – again, indefinitely – a record of every time my door opens or closes. My Sonos speakers, by default, track what albums, playlists or stations I’ve listened to, and when I press play, pause, skip or pump up the volume. At least they only hold on to my sonic history for six months.
In order to grasp the full nefariousness of this, we have to ask why? Simply, because these devices are owned by companies that would like to sell you more items in the future.
That’s where Amazon comes in.
And now the craziest part: After quizzing these companies about data practices, I learned most are sharing what’s happening in my home with Amazon, too. Our data is the price of entry for devices that want to integrate with Alexa. Amazon’s not only eavesdropping – it’s tracking everything happening in your home.
This data allows Amazon to categorize you as a consumer and target you for whatever their algorithms believe that you’ll purchase. They’ll do so deftly and subtly because your data belied your wallet’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities to Amazon.
So where else does this data go?
Does Amazon report to the FBI every time someone buys a copy of The Anarchist Cookbook?
Do democratic political operatives get a copy of Amazon’s MAGA-Hat Purchase Map?
Will manufacturers raise and lower prices based on the supply and demand of a particular item in a certain area? Will Amazon?
In trading privacy for convenience, we have given the consumerism cabal the keys to our personalities and near-instant access to our cash in exchange for not having to drive to store. It may be time to take some of that privacy back.
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