Article written by Olivia Kneebone, current European Legal Studies student at The University of Westminster.
It is no secret that tech giants such as Google, Facebook and Amazon acquire and store our personal data for ‘marketing’ purposes. However, in the past 20 years of radical advances in technology, the boundaries between the right to access citizen data and the right to privacy have been completely shattered, and the majority of people aren’t even aware of how deep that goes. We are all in belief of this narrative that we are the ones that use social media; be it for sharing content or keeping in contact with friends, but the reality is so much deeper – social media is the one that uses us.
We have given up our right to privacy for the sake of convenience. Convenience is an important component of a good easy life and if we neglected convenient choices, our lives would become inefficient and difficult. However, we must weigh convenience against the price we are paying for it. To the average person, a business tracking one click of theirs might not seem like a big deal. But these clicks accumulate, through searching, browsing, liking, and buying, and this can create an alarmingly detailed profile of you.
One of the biggest examples where convenience has won the battle over privacy is when it comes to voice-controlled smart speakers. As a society we collectively decided that playing and managing our own music was too tiresome and awkward, enter Alexa. Even when not awake, Alexa can still harvest information from every conversation you ever have in the confines of your own home. Amazon is dependent on knowing so much more about you in order to microtarget advertising and frame this data collection as a means to improve their services. The big question: is this the only use of our information? The simplest answer: probably not.
The manufacturers promise that only speech following the wake word is archived in the cloud. However, there have been numerous reports of data leakage and mishaps with the Amazon Echo. In the US, a women reported that her Echo had sent recordings of private conversations to one of her husband’s employees. In 2018, in Germany, a customer was sent nearly 2000 audio files from someone else’s Echo, all containing information about her name and location. More than 100 million Alexa-enabled devices have been sold worldwide, which means that 100 million of us have willingly surrendered ourselves and our privacy to the Orwellian ‘never-sleeping ear.’ But Amazon is not stopping here; they are planning to integrate voice-controlled technology into all manner of devices, such as cars, televisions, headphones, microwaves, thermostats, and clocks, while signing deals with house construction companies and hotels.
Consider, if Amazon, for example, had a security breach, millions of people’s personal identifiable information would be at risk. The information stored from these private conversations, in the wrong hands, could be held for ransom against the threat of online publication which in today’s society, is probably one of the worst things that can happen to you. It can also be used to defraud people into giving away even more sensitive information.
There are worries, particularly in the US, that instead of legislating to protect user privacy, governments will seek to access this information in the name of crime or terrorist prevention – the ethics of this are up for debate. But not all hope is lost to protect our information. Apple is the market leader in an opt-in opt-out scheme of voice control. If all the big tech companies can follow suit, we can say that consumers are making an informed choice. Shoshanna Zuboff, author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, says that regulation is what these companies fear the most. Strict parameters regarding what the data is actually used for are necessary and companies should be held to provide evidence of this. Proof of a secure storage system that isn’t easily hackable is also essential for governments to impose on tech companies. We can abstain from buying these products and use VPNs but somehow, somewhere our information is being taken. At the heart of democracy, citizens must ask for change, whether that be through petitioning, protesting, or writing to your local MP.
Some useful follow up resources:
Shoshanna Zuboff articles
Big Brother Watch