Amazon is really pushing their new Echo device, a voice-controlled computer that -- I kid you not -- stays permanently connected to the internet as it recognizes your voice and makes a record of everything you say.
Echo was born from a simple idea: create a computer, controlled entirely by your voice. This idea required some incredible invention. It had to understand natural language requests, from many voices, from across a room, even when music is playing. It also needed to be informative, entertaining, and useful—while always getting smarter.
With seven microphones, beam-forming technology, and noise cancellation, Echo achieved this goal by enabling far-field voice recognition.
Why should we worry about this? Well, last year we learned that Amazon was in bed with -- do I even need to tell you? -- the CIA.
This summer, a $600 million computing cloud developed by Amazon Web Services for the Central Intelligence Agency over the past year will begin servicing all 17 agencies that make up the intelligence community.
This computing cloud, which allows the CIA and the NSA to share information instantly, is the same cloud that Echo will be connected to 24/7. This article spells it out...
All 17 agencies that comprise the U.S. intelligence community will be making use of Amazon's cloud, including, selected at random, the NSA, the DEA, the Department of the Treasury, the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, and Coast Guard Intelligence—which you'd think you would have heard of by now.
There's almost assuredly a long view with Amazon's CIA data center, too terrible to contemplate, ideas pinging around, brainstorming sessions on how best to leverage a dense mass of black op debriefs and decrypting moments of human intimacy; whole communities reduced to metadata-hyperlinked dossiers; transcripts of interrogations that decent people would call torture; dark truths and useless junk all hanging shapeless in a steady breeze of electrons behind Langley's firewall. (It will certainly be an advantage in Amazon's Cloud War against Google.)
To imagine Amazon's dark black breathing machine communicating regularly with the NSA's yottabyte data center outside Bluffdale, extracting and calcifying this vast containment facility of our past lives, is to cry out in anguish over a grim new understanding of what it truly means to be governed.
But there's more. Look at what we learn from the first comment (written by someone who seems to know what he is talking about)...
The $600M covers way way more than storage - it's a full build-out of the complete Amazon Web Services stack in a facility that can be used by the intelligence community. Any press-release excreting "cloud company" can do virtual servers and block storage. Most of them are just rebranding VMWare or doing other lame things. The CIA/AWS contract states that all current and future AWS services will all get deployed into the special CIA cloud as well.
Amazon expects you to pay $180 dollars for the privilege of installing a super-acute eavesdropping device in your home, one which will be able to make out what you are saying even if you are listening to music or watching TV. Your words -- all of your words, uttered in the privacy of your own home -- will be translated "on the fly" into digital-ese, sent to the NSA, and stored forever in the Bluffdale facility, available for keyword searches.
Put a microphone in your product, and someone is going to assume you're listening to them. That's one of the challenges Amazon Echo - the online retailer's "Siri in a totem pole" - faces, with suspicion about just how much Jeff Bezos & Co. (or his algorithms, at least) are actually eavesdropping on. Given the power of Amazon's recommendation engines and the amount of data it gathers just from casual browsing, you can certainly see where some of the paranoia might come from, too. A microphone-mute button takes pride of place on top of Echo, but will it be enough to persuade potential users that the virtual assistant is working for them and not for Amazon itself?
Of course the mics will still operate when the "mute" button is pushed. That button is a placebo.
What kind of mental defective would buy this thing?
The same mental defectives who made Facebook an inescapable part of American life -- even though everyone knows that Facebook is the CIA. You can't get onto Facebook without giving them your cell phone number, which means that they can -- and do -- track you everywhere you go.
By the way, we could change all of that. We could insist on a law which would mandate that every cell phone sold in this country come equipped with a genuine "off" switch.
Why isn't such a law on the books right now? Because most Americans are cattle.
I don't have a cell phone, and never have. I do have a Facebook account. They have asked me for a cell number once or twice (not when I signed up though, just email address), but I don't have one so I just ignore it. I do wonder though, if they will ever make it a requirement. Yahoo mail asks me for one occasionally, just in case I need to reset my password and don't have another email address on file with them (which I do, another throwaway I almost never use). I also pass on those, since I couldn't enter a number I don't have anyway.
I also never post anything on Facebook anymore, ever. I just comment on and like friends posts. Of course, they can still tell where I am just by who my closest friends are (not to mention my internet connection and usage at home and at work), though I don't have any of my work, address, or past schools info on Facebook at all and never enter it when they ask (which they do periodically, saying my profile is not yet complete........trust me, it's as complete as I want it to be).
To answer your question though, there are plenty of people in my workplace who are proud to be "early adopters" of the latest and greatest technology and who will likely want to get this abomination as soon as they can. These people are actually quite technical, intelligent people who should know better, but they are also largely of the "I'm not doing anything wrong, so I don't have anything to worry about" variety. People, even very smart people, seem to have simply given up on the idea of privacy as if it was inevitable that we would loose it and not that big of a deal anyway.
I despair over the state of our "Democracy".
posted by Gus : 11:36 AM
Funny you should ask...
posted by igd : 1:00 PM
Thanks for this article. Amazon is a wonderful service with their recommendation system for reading an acceptable price to pay for buying books from them. Plus Bezos laugh is honking awesome. But... their unprincipled treatment of Wikileaks (they gave a senator a conceptual BJ) a few years ago caused me to cancel my membership and I won't deal with them now. Wikileaks might have been wrong but AWS ejected Wikileaks early. With the purchase of the Post I hope Jeff is more tolerant of his new Bridge cohorts.
posted by Arbutos205 : 4:36 PM
The Amazon Echo is 9 inches tall, and most of its size seems to be accounted for by speakers and the enhancement of the sound that's sent to the speakers. The listening bit must be tiny.
Are they going to fit it onto Kindles and tablets and laptops next?
Look at how many retards use Facebook, organising their 'social' lives so as best to help advertisers and the secret police, thinking they're being 'free'. Richard Stallman has it right: it's best to call these idiots Facebook 'useds, not 'users'.
How long before you can't have a conversation on a train without other passengers holding up microphones to catch your words for the NSA and CIA?
How long before millions of people voluntarily audio-bug their living rooms for the NSA and CIA? Who'd actually want to go and visit such an arsehole? But what happens when there's hardly anyone else to visit?
Where else is this technology already used? My hunch is that audio surveillance is far more widespread than many people think.
posted by b : 7:48 PM
Some of the comments at Amazon's page selling the Echo:
"1,689 of 1,756 people found the following review helpful" "Already very practical for overcoming disability issues"
"We have been using Echo since April. Prior to that time, my husband had been hospitalized for several weeks. He is currently wheelchair bound. We immediately installed the Hue bridge and lights as well as the WEMO outlet. With these, and dear, dear, Alexa, he has a great deal of control of his environment in ways that make him much more independent. Others might enjoy Echo for fun and convenience, but for him it is a lifeline! He has even had her turn the lights on in my bedroom when I didn't hear him call."
"We use the shopping list feature a lot, and my husband has added things to the list that he remembered, while I was already at the store. Should I mention he adds things like chocolate bars when I'm not looking? No more paper lists! I just look at the app on my phone and things disappear as I check them off."
"The Echo has become the most used appliance in our home."
"592 of 631 people found the following review helpful" "Alexa, my love. Thy name is inflexible, but thou art otherwise a nearly perfect spouse."
"Most Recent Customer Reviews" "Good start, hoping for more!"
"A useful tool, especially if you don't have any bluetooth speakers. I use it a lot for making to-do and grocery lists; something I struggled with before getting my Echo."
"We love our Echo!!"
"When we hooked up Echo my 7 year old son said, "This is going to change our lives" and it has. We love it! The number one feature we use is music."
I wonder how many of these excuses for intelligent human beings would voluntarily kill themselves, or each other, if advertisers asked them to?
Where are you, Stanley Milgram?
posted by b : 7:59 PM
"Given the power of Amazon's recommendation engines"
Amazon often scares the crap out of me when it advertises book titles at me that are spot-on for my tastes and interests - titles I haven't heard of before and am tempted to try to get hold of.