Why Would You Want an Amazon Echo and Who Else is Listening


Amazon EchoHow do you feel about a device that is listening to everything that is being said in your home or office and is connected to the Internet? Especially in this age of cyber terrorism,  when we know that criminals already use tools like Facebook to target people with easy to steal and easy to sell assets.

How do you feel when Gmail bombards you with advertisements for products you have just bought or vacation location deals when you have just returned home from that place? Besides being a waste of time because you already have those things, it shows how Google (in return for giving you free email software and storage) has access to everything you write using their freeware.

So when Amazon had their massive sale on Prime Day, I thought about the Amazon Echo and wondered what I would do with it if I had one and why.

I very occasionally use Siri to save a reminder, a note, perhaps in the car to reduce the risk of having pen and paper in my hand when the lights change, or illegally using my phone because of the inherent risks, even at a traffic light. No joke, my wife has had 2 cars she was driving totalled, both while she was legally stationary at a red light. I’m not saying she could have avoided them, she couldn’t, but the people who hit our cars were certainly not paying attention.

So when I take Siri, and I have to admit it has improved in it’s ability to understand my Kiwi accent, the number of times I have said one thing and Siri has randomly rung a phone number for someone I had no desire to speak with and the fact that Siri has even randomly responded to a sound it heard, when I hadn’t even touched my phone is interesting.

I would love to have an automated home. When I got home last night from dinner in the freezing cold city it was around 6 degrees inside our house and I said to my wife how nice it would be if I could have turned on the heat pump via my phone. It has a timer, but we didn’t know when we would be home and I’m sure we could get an electrician to wire a remote switch into that circuit without having to buy a new heat pump, but I digress.

When everything I write makes a permanent footprint on the Internet and the supplier of that service has access to it all in order to ‘assist me’, I struggle with why I would want another device listening to everything I say.

Imagine living in a country like North Korea where you can be put in jail or worse for just saying the wrong thing to the wrong person, and then having a device that YOU PURCHASED providing access to every word that you said in the ‘privacy of your own home’.

Now I know that Amazon is not a spy agency, they can’t afford for this product to risk your privacy because if it did, they could go broke, but they do want to know what you are interested in and devices like these are supposed to be your personal digital assistant. I used to have an executive assistant in one of my jobs and she knew what I wanted or needed often before I did. It was awesome because I knew and trusted her. this device has to listen, even for the Alexa command to work, so technically it is listening to every word, even if in theory it is identifying most as not relevant.

The biggest issue for me with devices like this, which was also why I digressed a little with the heatpump, is that hacking or cyber crime is easy if you know how,or are prepared to pay someone to do it for you. Whether it is hacking someone’s wireless internal garage door or front door, checking Facebook to see who has a boat in the their back yard AND is on holiday overseas is really simple, because most people don’t know how to or don’t want privacy, because they don’t realise the risk.

I read a CBS story this morning about how some cheap Chinese mobiles are apparently surreptitiously sending information from the mobiles back to China using firmware that was in the phones from the factory.

You could say that Alexa can only be woken by people using the word Alexa, then it starts listening for instructions. So what is the first thing that is going to happen when you buy one of these devices? You’re going to tell your friends about it and show it off, so you are going to be using the word frequently and waking it up frequently and it will start listening.

For now I think I’d at least like to be able to use the fingerprint recognition on my phone and tap a button to turn on an appliance if I can’t be bothered standing up to do something like turn on a light. I am happy that I can have a wireless remote system with security algorithms to do that. I’m not sure I want Amazon or a hacker to be able to listen to everything said in my home and then using data mining tools to look for keywords or information that could be used by criminals, or by advertisers to send me more info I don’t want.

How about you?

 

Advertisements

The Internet as a battlefield


I’ve been trying to work on this post for ages, but never seem to get it finished. The more I think about it, the more tangents I head in, so here’s a start anyway. Maybe you can add a comment to the thread.

When we, Joe Citizen think of warfare, the common picture is either soldiers, tanks and planes, or more recently terrorist attacks. Information warfare is not a topic that we think of very often.

Of course using media such as radio, print and TV have been used for decades to provide disinformation, but now that we have the Internet, there is potential for a new front that could cripple economies and cause massive disruption to life as we know it.

Last month 14 Virgin Blue flights were cancelled in Melbourne when a broken cable disrupted their computer systems, stranding thousands of passengers. A total of 48 domestic flights were cancelled as a follow on of this problem.

Periodically there are major EFTPOS failures, which can happen at the worst possible times. For example in 2005 the EFTPOS network in New Zealand broke down for 2 hours on 23rd December. The estimate was that around half a million transactions were lost on one of the busiest days for retailers in the year. Millions of dollars in transactions were lost because people don’t really carry cash any more.

In November last year Brazil and some of Venezuela lost their power. Nine of Brazil’s states were out of power, representing millions of people. Whilst many complained they couldn’t watch their favorite soap opera, traffic lights were not working, trains weren’t running and parts of the country pretty much ground to a halt.

If a country or a terrorist organisation wanted to cause chaos or in some way to a country or city in the modern world, it would be incredibly easy. In Holland a guy called Max Cornelisse has created chaos and recorded it on YouTube to show how easy it is to disrupt services we take for granted. Amongst other things he has meddled with electronic signs on freeways, opened and closed bridges over canals from his PDA, sent people running from one platform to another by controlling automated PA messages at railway stations and in this YouTube Video he controlled the autoprompter at a Dutch TV station causing confusion to the newsreaders on live TV. Unfortunately it is in Dutch, but you’ll get the idea.

This is just a guy having a little fun, but what could you do if you seriously wanted to disrupt a country or city. What chaos would you create simply by shutting down the Internet. How would your business function without the Internet? How would your community function without the Internet? Imagine no email, no Voice over IP, no web browsing, no IM, no Facebook or Twitter? No online share trading. No banking, no EFTPOS, no ATM’s and who carries cash?

That’s just for starters. I wonder how long it would take for a major city, like New York, London or Amsterdam to fall into chaos? What would happen after a day, a week, even longer?

Last week there was a story on NPR about cyber terrorism. It quoted USA Director of National Intelligence, Dennis Blaire saying that “Every single day, Blair said, sensitive information is “stolen from both government and private sector networks” as criminals become increasingly more sophisticated.”

Interestingly on 16 February 2010 an event will take place in a simulated Whitehouse Situation Room which is scripted to emulate a cyber terrorist attack. Those taking part will include former Director of National Intelligence John Negroponter and former Homeland Security Advisor Fran Townsend, who will have to work out how to deal with it as it plays out.

This has happened shortly “after the House overwhelmingly passed The Cybersecurity Enhancement Act. Something that gives the Obama administration the power to switch off the Internet,” according to Techeye. For more on the Act, check here.

Just as a final thought for now. If you know how to defend against an attack, you also know how to initiate one. I’m not for a moment suggesting any Western power would do that, but given the right circumstances…….

I am very happy to be living in New Zealand in that respect. Although we have allowed ourselves to become very dependant on our friends and allies, not even able to fully feed ourselves if we bacame isolated.