Amazon’s Echo and the smart TVs that are listening to and watching everything you do
Pretty soon your toaster will soon be one of the few things that isn’t keeping track of your every move – or at least you’d hope so
‘Alexa, are you smarter than Dad?’ Photograph: Chris Schmidt/Getty Images
Amazon’s Echo defies easy description. Actually, that’s not quite true: the easy way to describe it is “creepy as hell”. What’s trickier is explaining what it is.
The Echo (below) is a 20cm-tall black cylinder, that sits in your home and listens to everything you do. You will want it to do this, if Amazon’s marketing is to be believed, because it will be able to answer questions like, “who is Abraham Lincoln?” and perform simple tasks such as adding ice cream to your shopping or playing a Taylor Swift track. (You have to say the “wake word”, “Alexa”, before it will act on what it hears).
The device is like a hyped-up Siri or Google Now for your whole house. And it does have some impressive technology behind it, packing two speakers and seven microphones into its small case. But still, anyone who is comfortable with the idea of an always-on, Wifi-enabled obelisk listening to everything they say will probably be the first to die in the inevitable cyberwar of the 22nd century.
And that’s before we get to the fact that one of Amazon’s selling points for the device is that it’s “always getting smarter”. (Isn’t this how Terminator starts?)
But don’t think that just because you keep Echo out of your home that you’re safe. The same always-listening technology is already in a number of high-end mobile phones, from Apple’s iPhones to the latest Android phones from Google and Motorola (although it needs to be explicitly turned on before it will work). Even devices which you don’t purchase with the explicit aim of letting a major technology company track everything you say are still keeping an eye on you.
The Amazon Echo – for customers who are comfortable with the idea of an always-on, Wi-Fi-enabled obelisk listening to everything they say
Take the humble TV. Ten years ago, it was a one-way device, with shows being broadcast into your home and nothing coming out the other way; the idea of a two-way telly was straight out of 1984. Now, though, we have “smart TVs”, which let you watch catch-up TV, YouTube videos, access Facebook and more, without needing a separate set-top box. And, of course, they can collect your data and send it back home to manufacturers.
Last Christmas, British security researcher Jason Huntley revealed that TVs made by Korean firm LG were sharing information about what their users were watching, and also the names of files on any USB stick that owners plugged in. He discovered, buried deep in a settings list, an item labelled “collection of watching info”, which is set to “on” by default – but even after he switched it off, the TV continued sending data.
LG apologised, and issued a firmware update to fix affected TVs, but the newest crop are hardly any better, putting pop-up ads on screen in the middle of shows and again making it less than clear how to turn them off.
The list of items that will not track you is shrinking daily. It is already basically down to toasters and dishwashers – and I have seen companies announce “smart toasters” before. Maybe it is time to just give in now. Alexa? Tell Amazon that I surrender.