Monday, February 18, 2019

Hey, Alexa!

You know how paranoid I am about Alexa. It scares me to have an open microphone in my home.  I'll walk the extra three steps to turn on the light or adjust the thermostat myself.

Of course “they” say Alexa is perfectly safe, there are firewalls galore, and your privacy is guaranteed. Alexa only responds to specific commands and knows the difference between casual conversation and a request.

And if you believe that there’s a certain real estate training university you should sign up for.

Meet Rocco the African grey parrot. He’s already somewhat infamous. He was kicked out of an animal sanctuary in the UK for swearing too much. (This, by the way, is true.) His previous owner must’ve been a writer for DEADWOOD (that is not true).

So now he’s home with his new owner, Marion Wischnewski. And when Marion is away Rocco engages in conversations with Alexa.

And orders things.

So far the parrot has ordered strawberries, watermelon, raisins, broccoli, ice cream, and (it gets better) a kite, kettle, and light bulbs. If only he’d order one of my books.

Every night Marion has to cancel all of these orders.

The point is, someone is listening. How do we know for sure it’s not just Alexa?

“Polly want a hacker.”

31 comments :

Coram_Loci said...

An Alexa in every home — we've come a long way from Herbert Hoover's chicken in every pot.

Continuing to pluck the conspiracy or Orwellian strings:

A listening device in your home.
DNA test kits used by you or some genetically related to you.
Socialized medicine.

We have the capacity know what you want and what you are medically susceptible to. And we are the only game in town when it comes to fixing you.

What could possibly go wrong?

Earl Boebert said...

We now live in a world where a large percentage of the population pays to have their homes bugged. What could possibly go wrong?

BobinVT said...

Instead of having to cancel all the stuff he orders while she’s away, why doesn’t she just turn the stupid thing off when she leaves him alone. Smells a bit hoaxy.

Cap'n Bob said...

Can't Alexa be switched off?

slgc said...

It's like the concept of a smart refrigerator.

Why am I going to risk my cybersecurity instead of just opening the damn door and seeing what's inside?

VP81955 said...

Uh, people, there's a little thing calls an "off" switch.

Michael said...

Did the parrot live with Harrison Ford, too?

J Lee said...

My goal is to get Alexa into a fight with Siri, but so far neither side will take the bait.

John Nixon said...

Pretty much anything that gets broadcast into the air can be intercepted and listened to. I was once standing next to a guy at a Blue Angels performance who had a scanner and was listening the the pilots talk to each other. And back before cell phones were common and cordless phones were the standard I owned a small hand held scanner that had about 10 channel slots. I searched on the internet for 'cordless phone frequencies', got a long list of them and started entering them into the channel slots, keeping the ones that received something. Next thing we knew we were listening to cordless phone calls from around the neighborhood. I learned about doing this from a guy I worked with. Nobody talked...or talks...about it but there were plenty of people doing it. For any machine that transmits there is a machine that receives.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

We have an alexa. I plug it in ONLY when I have a party and want to control music. Otherwise we keep it unplugged.

Buttermilk Sky said...

How generous of Ken to share this story with his readers instead of turning it into a screenplay. Or has someone already done that?

Coram_Loci, a DNA test of a distant relative led to the apprehension of the Golden State Killer. This raises serious Fourth Amendment issues but most people would consider it a benefit to society.

Rob Dames said...

I have the Google version and periodically when I'm watching television and there a moment of loud dialogue, Google responds..."I'm sorry I don't know how to help you with that."

Mike Bloodworth said...

There have been reports, including one late last year, of Alexa recordings being subpoenaed as evidence in criminal proceedings. I think that people on both ends of the political spectrum should be worrying about the "Big Brother" aspects of these devices. I won't have one of those things in my house. That's also why I keep my cell phone covered or in its case most of the time. Just in case somebody tries to hack my camera or if "Hey Google" is listening without my knowledge.

And it's well documented that parrots, myna birds, etc., can and do imitate sounds like doorbells, phones ringing and frequently repeated words and phrases. I knew a girl that had a parrot. She would constantly tell it to "shut up!" and of course the bird would yell, "shut up!" right back. It would also swear in Spanish even though she didn't speak Spanish.
M.B.

therealshell said...

I'm still capable of turning off lights myself, and picking out my own music, and ordering pizza, etc. I have no need for Alexa, Siri, or saying "Ok Google." I'm old-fashioned.

therealshell said...

I'm surprised that nobody has referenced the dead parrot sketch yet.

MikeKPa. said...

Amazing how much privacy Americans are willing to forsake for convenience. Saw a story on Axios today on a British parliament committee report damning Facebook for its lack of privacy protection to the point of recommending regulating it and other tech companies like Google and Amazon, levying sizable fines, and holding them legal liable for oversight failures. The report said "big tech companies are failing in the duty of care they owe to their users to act against harmful content, and to respect their data privacy rights." Britain and the EU are light years ahead of the U.S. in taking action to hold the tech companies' feet to the fire.

Tood Everett said...

I understand that before Alexa was attuned to the parrot's voice saying "hacker," she sent seventeen hookers.

Kosmo13 said...

It seems like in the 21st Century we're living in the sort of dystopian society Patrick McGoohan tried to escape from every week on "The Prisoner." Instead of having it foisted on us by a controlling government, we're choosing it willingly.

Andy Rose said...

@John Nixon: People who were in the radio business probably remember the "Marti" transmitter that was used for remote broadcasts. It used a set of frequencies that could be picked up with a police scanner, so I used to listen to my local sports broadcasters talking to each other (and ogling cheerleaders) during the commercial breaks.

YEKIMI said...

Wait till Rocco figures out he can order a female parrot!

Anonymous said...

I agree with you about Alexa.
I also am a Apple user since my first Mac 512 ( ie the "Fat Mac")
I beleive you have mentioned in the past of your son ( son inlaw?) is one of Apple's whiz's.
But must ask. what is your view on the cable companies starting to use "Apple TV's" as set top boxes?

Peter said...

Friday Question

The upcoming HBO documentary Leaving Neverland has caused a lot of controversy. Many of the people who've already seen it say it will forever change how the world sees Michael Jackson. His hardcore fans say it's a hatchet job and that he was innocent.

I used to be a huge fan, and whilst I still love the music, I've come to the conclusion he had a fixation on young boys as evidenced by him going on tours always accompanied by boys not related to him, the sleepovers and giving huge sums of money to the boys' parents. 

I've also read about objective unbiased observers witnessing him beat Bubbles the chimpanzee. Even if he wasn't guilty of child abuse, he was definitely guilty of cruelty to an animal and that makes him a piece of shit in my book.

What's your opinion on Jackson? Did you like his music before all the allegations came out? Do you think he was a child molester or a misunderstood man? 

On a lighter note, some time ago I looked up your posts from the day he died and I cracked up at this bit about fans being interviewed on TV:

"One said the best thing about Michael Jackson was how he could seduce women. And he said this with a straight face."

MikeN said...

And Amazon's Super Bowl commercial was all about how if you get an Alexa you will end up with lots of accidental ordering.

I'm wondering if this is a feature, like they say how seniors enjoy getting junk mail.

Peter said...

Alexa was removed from the White House because staff had to keep cancelling orders for Russian hookers.

And for balance...

I wonder if Jussie Smollett used Alexa to order two actors and rope.

Jeff Boice said...

Made the mistake of buying a "smart TV". Didn't keep it long. The thing kept turning itself on, increasing the volume to maximum, and did a few other things I can't remember. Complained and they said the smart mechanism was too sensitive. They added they needed to be there when it acted up in order to know for sure. Returned it instead. Later I read an article that some"smart TVs" recorded people's conversations. Thats why they're so 'smart"- they remember everything you say, type, or click on.

Decades ago I asked Dad if he could get one of those Zenith TV's that had the Space Age Remote Control. He was aghast- his son was so damn lazy he couldn't be bothered to get up out of the chair, walk over to the set and turn the channel selector knob. What would Dad think about all these smart devices?

Rory L. Aronsky said...

Right now, Richard Nixon's looking up, teary-eyed (for him), thinking, "It's all so beautiful! And so much more convenient than in my day."

carmilevy said...

I've got an Echo speaker in my home office, and a couple of Google Home units in the kitchen and the living room. I've written and spoken on-air countless times about the security risks they pose, and the protections consumers must take before they decide to bring them home.

At the same time, we need to recognize that the electronic assistant software - Alexa in the case of Amazon, Assistant (Google) and Siri (Apple) - are also built into our smartphones, as well as a fast-growing range of smart home devices. Heck, even my car is Google Assistant-enabled, with a dedicated button on the steering wheel hub.

My point being you don't need a speaker to be vulnerable. That thing in all our pockets is already listening in.

Mike Barer said...

Who would listen and what would they hear. If they were spying on us, they would die of boredom.

Pat Reeder said...

The whole idea of Alexa, Siri, "smart appliances," and the "Internet of things" is incredibly stupid. I wouldn't allow any of it in my house. I even won an Alexa recently in a charity auction and sold it and gave the money to the charity.

BTW, we have 12 rescued parrots and cockatoos in our house, including an African grey named Dorian Gray who can hold a perfectly lucid conversation with you. I can see why Rocco likes Alexa; African greys are very intelligent and he enjoys talking to something that responds to him. I might get an Alexa for Dorian, but only if I could turn off the ordering function and unplug it when anyone other than the parrots were home. I think it might be fun to screw with the heads of the people who are trying to create marketing profiles of me to make them unwittingly eavesdrop all day on a conversation with a bird.

Andrew said...

I've heard about several cases of people having private discussions in their home, like "maybe it's time for us to get a dog," or "we need to throw out those shower curtains and get new ones," and then getting ads on their phone for what they were discussing.

Pat Reeder said...

PS - As for the idea of being secure by just turning this stuff off, I read recently that someone discovered discarded "smart light bulbs" still held their owners' unencrypted Internet passwords in their memory chips.