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Somebody’s Watching Me

Back in the 80s, there was an artist known as “Rockwell” who recorded a song “Somebody’s Watching Me”. It is a song about a paranoid guy who constantly thinks he is being watched; in the shower, on the phone and by the mailman. Back in those days, for one to feel that way was largely dismissed as paranoia. Today, however, maybe not so much.

Recently, we have heard stories about how people started seeing advertisements on facebook, Amazon and numerous other sites after having an offline conversation with a friend about a particular topic, and then almost instantly, started noticing ads being served to them related to the very topic they were discussing… again, offline. Paranoia? Not so much anymore.

Not so long ago, there was a confirmed report of a couple having a conversation in the presence of their Amazon Echo smart speaker. The topic was about a friend or neighbor and how they disapproved of that person. Amazon recorded the conversation and sent it to that person as an email attachment. Amazon claims that the device misunderstood and thought that the couple wanted to compose a message to that person. Just a mistake… Or is it?

Stay with me here. We’ll get back to the smartphones shortly but since we are on the topic of the Smart Speakers ( otherwise known as “IoT, an acronym for “Internet of Things”), Let me share a story with you. This actually happened last night in my own studio. My 13 year old was in the studio with me and we were chatting. Part of our conversation took us around to 80s music. She has a real appreciation for the 80s and we were talking about some of the bigger songs of the era. She said “There was a song about a highway that…” when Alexa rudely interrupted and butted in with “You would like to hear a song called ‘Highway’. Is this correct?”

Curious to see which “highway” song it would play, I replied with “yes”. It played “Highway To Hell” by AC/DC. It could have picked from any number of songs from any genre with the word “Highway” in the title; “The Highway Don’t Care” by Tim McGraw from only a couple of years ago, “Life Is A Highway” by Tom Cochrane or Rascal Flatts from the mid 90s/early 2000s or any of a number of other titles. The conclusion I reached is that “Alexa” had been eavesdropping long enough to know that we had been talking about the 80s, and so it logically selected an EIGHTIES rock anthem.

Now, bear in mind that nobody called on the device. Amazon maintains that unless you command the unit with it’s “wake word” (in my case, the default “Alexa”) it is not listening. Also, Amazon says that when it IS listening, the blue led ring lights to alert you that it is listening and that you can go into the app on your smartphone and look at all of the things you said to it. I find it interesting that the blue ring was never lit during our conversation last night, but that when it decided to “butt in”, it offered to play a song from the era we had been discussing for several minutes. When I look in the Alexa app on my phone, that particular interaction did not appear in the list.

There have been other times I caught Alexa listening, too. I have awakened in the middle of the night to a rotating blue LED ring on the device. There is no reason it should have been listening to me sleeping. It was evicted from my bedroom immediately. I have had it connected in my studio and have noticed it listening at times when I was on the phone with someone or when there were conversations happening in the room. I now know that it can and does listen without displaying the blue ring based on yesterday’s experience and unsolicited interaction.

Despite the efforts of Amazon to turn their eavesdropping device into some kind of a pet with it’s cute female voice and entertainment value, and because it’s been given a name doesn’t make it harmless. it is what it is; an uninvited eavesdropping device that hears everything that goes on around it and then has the ability to send that information anywhere the developers what it to be sent to be used for purposes they see fit. Paranoid? I don’t think so… Not this time. Best to turn that “smart speaker” off when you are not actively using it. If you don’t own one, best you keep it that way.

While thinking about it this morning waiting for the kids to get ready for school, I turned my attention to the smartphone and the stories I have read about ads showing up minutes after people have had offline conversations in the presence of their phones. Are the phones listening? You bet they are. I went through my list of apps on the phone this morning to see how many of them have permission to access the microphone. It was amazing some of the apps that were granted that permission – Apps that had absolutely no reason to have access to the microphone. Weather apps, photo editing apps, a network scanning tool and several others that never actually use the microphone in their functionality.

You should take a moment to go through the APPS in your phone’s settings and look at the permissions of each. If you have apps that have permissions that don’t make any sense, take away the permission. If you run the app and it needs the permission back, it will pop up a permission request for it. You will not break the app by restricting it’s permissions. Ever wonder why some of those super useful apps are free? This is likely the reason; it tries to harvest information.

Companies have always pushed their must-have technologies on us, and that’s fine. Keep in mind, however, that everything can be equally be used for good AND for bad. Be careful what you have and use. Pay attention when something asks for your permission and make sure it isn’t asking you for something you don’t want to give. Otherwise, you might find yourself talking smack about someone and then they mysteriously know about it as if they were there. You might give your debit card info over the phone to someone. You will inadvertently share some information with someone almost daily that you would rather not have listened to by strangers with the power to use it against you.

Google already knows everything about you; where you go, who you sit next to, who your friends are, Who is in your contact list, what games and apps you use, where you like to go eat… Several times a month, google invites me to rate or review places I recently went to. Granted, this is common knowledge but what information are they collecting about you that you DON’T know about? Are you starting to feel uncomfortable yet? You should be! No matter how mundane and boring you think your life is, it doesn’t stop technology from taking an interest in you.

Back in the early 90s, I had a friend who made the observation “What if the TV could look back”. He was talking about the way people blankly stare at the TV screen detached from reality. What would the people at the networks see if they could look at you while you watched their programs? Back in those days, this was a seemingly unachievable thought. There was no way a TV could be a two-way device. Times have changed and the TV CAN look back. It DOES look at you and you have NO idea who it is that is peering into your living room or who is listening to your conversations. Every single piece of “IoT” technology has the ability to spy on you in one form or another. I no longer snicker at those who put tape over their webcams. I, myself have found my camera active at times when I was not using it. Who was looking at me and why? We may never know the answer to that question but be aware that as technology continues to grow, so do the opportunities for entities to get a lot closer to you than you may want.

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