This week Amazon announced an interesting new product named Echo. They started with a basic Bluetooth speaker, then added a microphone and a Siri-like personal assistant to handle your every need. The idea is that you can sit in the comfort of your own living room, activate Echo by speaking a keyword, and then ask it for tomorrow’s weather or Tom Cruise’s age or when Interstellar is showing at your local theatre or whatever and it will tell you the answer. It’s the next step in convenience and while I personally would prefer to Google the info myself on one of the 3 computers within arms reach I can definitely see the advantages that something like this would have, especially for people with mobility issues. Sure, as anyone who’s played around with Apple’s Siri application knows very well, there are problems with voice recognition technology but it’s getting better. Things are trending toward this type of automation and this is clearly the wave of the future.
Before you rush out and pre-order one of these things, though, let’s just slow down for a minute and take another look at how it works. First, recognize that it has an internet connection, either directly or through some device that it is tethered to. All that information it can give you isn’t just sitting on your computer waiting for you to ask, it’s out in the Interwebs somewhere. Second, and most importantly, you activate it by speaking a keyword. In order to respond to the keyword, the device must be listening all the time. All the time. Putting those two together, you have just installed a microphone in your living room that is always listening and is connected to the Internet. With computer security breaches being announced daily and governments worldwide increasing their electronic surveillance abilities with little regard for the law or personal privacy, this no longer seems to be as cool a product as it first appeared.
“Oh, come on, Feingarden,” you say, “You’re just being paranoid. Take off your tinfoil hat and stop over-reacting.”
In response I offer you a story that appeared on the very same web page that was touting the introduction of the Echo. I didn’t even have to scroll to find it, the Gods of Irony put them both on my screen at the same time. It seems that someone has put up a website that is showing the video feeds from roughly 73,000 web cams that people have installed in their parking lots, hallways, living rooms, babies’ bedrooms, and yes, even their own bedrooms without bothering to properly secure them or even change the default settings. The site claims to be a warning about security but they do sell advertising, and finding insecure web cams is pretty easy for anyone to do regardless of their motive.
Given that, I think I’ll keep my tinfoil hat on for a little while longer and suggest that you may want to think twice before putting an open microphone in your living room and connecting it to the entire world.