Electronic gadgets are now part of all of our lives — from the handheld devices we carry and check non-stop for messages to alarm systems that protect our loved ones and property.
But it has begun to dawn on people that the convenience these gadgets provide comes with a steep price. Many of these devices are actually listening to and recording our every move.
Sounds like the plot of an old sci-fi film, right? Indeed. But the fantasies of science fiction and the real world have melded together in the 21st century.
We find ourselves living in the age of “decentralized surveillance,” according to Jeff Chester, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Digital Democracy. “We’re living in a world where we’re tethered to some online service stealthily gathering our information.”
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In other words, our devices are spying on us.
In a March 8, 2017, story, The Daily Telegraph of London reported that TVs, like computers, are “being hacked and turned into spying tools.” TV manufacturer Vizio has been accused of spying on its customer base, and Wikileaks released documents that appeared to show the CIA had technology to transform smart TVs into “bugging devices.”
Meanwhile, Jon Webb of the Evansville (Ind.) Courier & Press reported on Jan. 2 that such voice-activated assistant devices as Amazon Echo and Google Home “eavesdrop on you all the live-long day.” He described an incident last spring when an Echo employee recorded a conversation between a husband and wife in Portland, Oregon — and proceeded to send a recording to one of his co-workers.
The product is supposed to be activated when someone says the word “Alexa.” Amazon claimed in a statement that its product “woke up due to a word in background conversation sounding like ‘Alexa,’” and continued to misinterpret the discussion to the point of unintentionally sending off a recording. Was it an accident? Perhaps, but it’s unnerving that something like this can happen.
Webb quoted security consultant Peter Hannay, who told Vice News last June that our smartphones are listening to us and sometimes “snippets of audio do go back to servers.” His article also noted that newer model cars can “track where you are at all times” and monitor driving habits for “safety purposes.”
Is nothing safe in our homes, schools and places of work and recreation?
Do we really want our massive federal government, never mind corporations, watching our every move?
We’ll see how effective the Fourth Amendment, which protects the public against the government rifling through our lives looking for crimes, is in the years ahead. Clearly, society needs to develop some new tools to protect privacy.
A version of this editorial first appeared in the Providence (R.I.) Journal, a News Herald sister paper with GateHouse Media.