Smart Speaker

My wife, Ash, tells me I am difficult to person to shop for. I also find I have a hard time figuring out what to buy other people. So, rather than suggest something you should buy, I’m here to recommend something you shouldn't buy as a gift: smart speakers.

They go by many different names (Apple HomePod, Google Home, Amazon Echo), but they all have one thing in common: They're the dystopian stuff of nightmares. (Haven't you people read any science fiction? We've been warned!)

As these technologies advance, as they have a habit of doing, these machines will continue to gather ever more data about the users who have foolishly placed them in their domiciles.

“At the beginning of October, Amazon was quietly issued a patent that would allow its virtual assistant Alexa to decipher a user’s physical characteristics and emotional state based on their voice,” reported The Intercept's Belle Lin on Nov. 15. “Characteristics, or 'voice features,' like language accent, ethnic origin, emotion, gender, age, and background noise would be immediately extracted and tagged to the user’s data file to help deliver more targeted advertising.”

Of course, these “always on” devices may accidentally be for the best in certain scenarios, but there's no guarantee.

“A New Mexico man was arrested for allegedly beating his girlfriend and threatening to kill her—after Amazon’s Alexa called police, authorities said,” reported the New York Post's Joshua Rhett Miller on July 10, 2017. “Eduardo Barros, 28, became angered with his unidentified girlfriend while house-sitting in Tijeras, about 15 miles east of Albuquerque, and the dispute suddenly turned physical on July 2, 2017. During the assault, Barros waved a gun and threatened to kill the woman before he allegedly asked: 'Did you call the sheriffs?' The question was inadvertently picked up by the smart speaker and the voice-powered virtual assistant recognized the phrase as a command—prompting it to call 911.”

The courts are taking notice of this new abundance of data.

“A New Hampshire judge has ordered Amazon to turn over two days of Amazon Echo recordings in a double murder case,” reported TechCrunch's Zack Whittaker on Nov. 14. “It’s not the first time Amazon has been ordered to turn over recordings that prosecutors believe may help a police investigation. Three years ago, an Arkansas man was accused of murder. Prosecutors pushed Amazon to turn over data from an Echo found in the house where the body was found. Amazon initially resisted the request citing First Amendment grounds—but later conceded and complied.”

And, while police might be listening on one end, criminals could also manipulate them on the other.

“Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley discovered virtual assistants may respond to more than a human voice,” reported WSB-TV's Lori Wilson on Oct. 18. “Malicious attacks can be hidden in music, white noise, even speech, and trick your smart device.”

By purchasing these devices for your loved ones, you're basically installing a confidential informant in their house.

Rob Burgess, News Editor at NUVO Newsweekly, can be reached by email at rburgess@nuvo.net, by phone at 317-808-4614 or on Twitter @robaburg.

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News Editor