How Much Rent Are You 
Collecting From Alexa?
The least you should expect from a cyborg whoshares your home and surveilles your lives isfair market payment for the value she receives. By Pem SchaefferMarch 6, Most readers are likely familiar with Alexa, the personal assistant residing in Amazon’s Echo products, and lots of other places. Prices begin under $50. And they keep evolving to provide even greater personal “services” for you and anyone else living on your premises. You can find models all the way up to $250. There are “smart glass” versions and others that look like a child’s animal toy. The better models have HD video screens and an HD video camera that follows you around, the better to track your every move. 
Echo and Alexa connect to Amazon’s Cloud to play music, make calls, set alarms and timers, ask questions, check your calendar, weather, traffic, and sports scores, manage to-do and shopping lists, control smart home devices, and more—instantly. Alexa will happily control your TV, request an Uber, order a pizza as well. And with the two-way video version, anyone can see you in your home, and you can see others in their home. Is this great or what?
The obvious appeal is Alexa’s seeming humanity, as opposed to the impersonal nature of a laptop or smartphone, where operating systems, applications, security, user interfaces, and other technical details are the coin of the realm. Alexa is always there anxious to “help.” She’s an unobtrusive addition to any setting, available in a variety of designer motifs. With a soothing, maternal voice; Big Brother re-imagined as a benevolent BFF cum family member.
As a Wall Street Journal article on technology said a few years back, …the internet giants are rushing to make more advanced products that could prove crucial to controlling consumers’ searches, their homes, and habits...” Boy does that comment need updating!
Echo devices, where Alexa lives, are remarkably simple at the human interface level. Each has speakers for talking to you, a microphone for listening to you, and a wireless internet connection. Video cameras in newer versions can see you in the dimmest of ambients. All are absent interactive devices like keyboards, mouses, and the like.
Pretty simple and non-threatening, though stuffed full of proprietary hardware and firmware. Don’t worry if these terms are unfamiliar; that’s part of Alexa’s allure. She can quickly become your room-mate or more correctly, a digital friend, or even a “secret friend.” 
So far so good. The immense power of Echo and Alexa lies not in video camera, voice recognition, and voice synthesis capabilities, but in “her” connection to the internet. Voice recognition simply digitizes inputs to the microphone and analyzes them for language content. Voice synthesis is the reverse of this process – creating spoken words from series of ones and zeros.
The “magic” of digital technology is that it reduces everything to elementary operations, executed by incredibly fast, inexpensive, and nearly error-proof electronic building blocks suggestive of basic Lego pieces. The AI (Artificial Intelligence) technology is disarmingly simple, yet humans are investing Billions in it. But, for what purpose?
By virtue of its microphones, Alexa hears everything said within its earshot, whether you wanted it to or not. She hears what TV shows or streaming content you’re watching; what radio shows or music you’re streaming; every bit of conversation whether purposeful, inane, courteous, cruel, or incriminating. Her “intellect” in the Cloud can discern every product-related comment, every like, dislike, wish, or even pox you utter. She hears all your bodily sounds. If you’re having a conversation on your smartphone, she hears it all. She knows when you get home, and when you leave home. If you mention a destination and return times to someone else, she hears that. She hears your pets.
Now imagine its expanded capabilities via the tracking video camera. Are you heading for the shower? What are you wearing today? What are you doing in your room? Who are you with? What are you doing together? What are you eating, drinking, or otherwise ingesting? What are you buying? I could go on and on, but why scare you (and myself) any more?
In short, your purchase and monthly charges related to these devices pay for them to audibly and visually invade the privacy of your home and your lives. Whether you are there or not. You think you have a right to privacy and a constitutional proscription from illegal search and seizure? Don’t make me laugh.
Given the “value proposition,” as MBA types like to call it, shouldn’t Alexa and Amazon be paying you instead of the other way around?
Shouldn’t they be paying rent for invading every last aspect of your lives, every hour of every day, when you are there and when you aren’t? As long as you are allowing her unlimited access to every part of your existence, shouldn’t you at least demand payment? Maybe you could negotiate a monthly credit of $250 or more on your Amazon account!
(Author’s note: Some readers prefer limited-length essays; if you are one, you can stop here and maybe come back later for the rest, or just blow it off. For the rest of you, what follows are thoughts on the higher-order principles in play here.)
The Dangers Inherent In The Digital Age
Consider the Global Digital Infrastructure (GDI), a term I use to describe the sum of all interconnected digital resources in the world, regardless of whether interconnected by the internet, the cellular system, or other means. The GDI consists primarily of electronic hardware and computer programs, and is a living thing, growing by leaps and bounds on a daily basis, and includes all the related resources of governments friendly and hostile.
As simple as the Echo/Alexa device may seem, once you connect it via the internet to the GDI, it is accessible to any other element of that global infrastructure. Anyone who listens to, speaks, views and videos to Alexa opens themselves up to visual and voice prompting from a vast universe of digital resources operated by unknowable entities in unknowable locations. And obviously, willingly provides input to “big data” archives. The economic value to those you don’t know is inestimable.
This is what “the cloud” means; you’re interacting with a vast, unstructured, indeterminate array of digital resources in the ether. You are an instantly accessible digital captive.
“Hacking” and other breaches of personal digital domains are frequent in our age; a troubling collection of malevolent actors are breaking into our digital homes. Some do it for amusement or to impress their friends. Some do it to enrich themselves. Others do it to subvert governmental, societal, and/or political stability. Digital crime in the form of ransom demands is common.
Hacking is only one danger inherent to the GDI. On-line retailers work to shape our buying habits, and others work in more subtle ways to control our thoughts and inclinations. Orwell’s 1984 is no longer a fictional contrivance; the GDI makes it all but inevitable.
Most of this takes place through daily use of laptops, tablets, smartphones, and other digital devices in our personal and professional lives when we’re conscious of our interaction with the GDI. Establishing a personal, oral connection between yourself and the GDI through an innocuous-seeming techno-tchotchke, on the other hand, is an entirely new form of human-GDI interaction. Siri, Alexa, and others are exploiting this domain, with aggregate intellect and innovation beyond imagining. Adding a video camera into the mix multiplies the possibilities by orders of magnitude.
The net result is product capability directly in conflict with the right to privacy we consider fundamental to our freedom. And unwitting exposure, literally and figuratively, to the vast predatory instincts that find expression through the GDI and the access it grants everything and everyone connected to it. Can you imagine exposing a child to this risk, as if the device was a talking doll of decades ago? No assurances or parental controls provided by the maker can provide iron-clad security while offering the wonders of the GDI at the mere uttering of words.
I hope you can fathom the serious risks involved in these devices and their underlying technology. Appreciating the dangers they represent to our children and/or grandchildren is the first step in recognizing the security vulnerabilities they impose upon us all. This isn’t about technology; it’s about generational technology naiveté conflated with human willingness to corrupt and control through the most innocent of means; about natural impulses to abuse. 
These devices are a modern-day version of illegal search and seizure. Combined with the leftist-driven breakdown of societal values, we face a future where we all become cattle to powerful elites. The only question is how willingly we do so.
I’ve reflected a considerable amount on the subject of this column, motivated primarily by concerns that one of these devices could end up in a grandchild’s room; yours, mine, or someone else’s. Much more needs to be written on the subject, but for now, I leave you with these thoughts: Schaeffer’s First Law of The Digital Age:
The Global Digital Infrastructure (GDI) connects all human life on the planet into a single, giant, metastasizing organism throbbing with incredible potential for advancing human good, expanding knowledge exponentially, invading our lives with unimaginable malice and evil, and transforming unsuspecting users into helpless and obedient captives. Schaeffer’s Second Law of The Digital Age:
Each breakthrough in utility deriving from advances in the Global Digital Domain is accompanied by equal or greater vulnerabilities and potential detriments to quality of life. Translation: Anything that can do amazingly great things for you can almost always do terribly awful things to you as well. 
Schaeffer’s Third Law of The Digital Age:
It’s impossible to make or enforce laws to guard the people against the dangers of global digital power, and impossible to prevent exponential growth in this power. The Zuckerbergs and Bezos and Dorseys and Googles of the world may propose to use their power benevolently, but they plan to use it and grow it without limit. They claim they’ll be good masters, but they mean to be masters. And they are already at the point of controlling your access to information, and shaping your every perception of the world in which you “live.” They are, in fact, the Thought Police that Orwell predicted coercive utopia would impose upon us. And we have succumbed to it like slowly boiling frogs.
In sum, if you aren’t already afraid, you need to become afraid – very afraid. Unless you are one of the master class just described, in which case, Damn You!

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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