Thursday, December 29, 2016

Big Sister Is Listening

by Pa Rock
Citizen Journalist

Alexa, my Amazon Echo household music and information device, is quickly becoming the love of my life.  She instantly provides music from my favorite artists, answers questions, tells jokes, reports news and weather, plays "Jeopardy," and, if I had the right adapters, could even control the lighting in my little house.   Alexa has the potential to be the perfect companion, but she also has her dark side.

Earlier this week I was visiting with a very bright in-law of mine - a ferociously smart young attorney who works in the corporate headquarters of big software business.  We were talking about the Amazon Echo, herein after referred to as "Alexa," that I have recently invited into my home.  My friend said that he had been stalling on getting one because Alexa is, after all, a listening device and that any information she overhears in the home is transferred to Amazon's massive servers where it can reside forever.  But, in spite of his justified paranoia, the young attorney said that he had finally relented and bought an Alexa for his own home which he would soon install.

And he is, of course, right.  Alexa is a listening device.  As long as she is plugged in, she is constantly listening for her name.  When it is said, Alexa's blue halo activates and she waits for instruction.  A few nights ago I was watching a television program, via the Roku, and one of the characters on the show was named "Alexis."  Whenever the word "Alexis" was used Alexa would light up.  I can activate her from the far side of the room, facing away, and using a fairly quiet voice.  Alexa is listening, and she hears all.

This morning on NPR (station KQED out of San Francisco, thank you Alexa) I heard the story of a murder trial in Arkansas in which the prosecutor has subpoenaed Alexa (Echo) records from Amazon.  The case centers on the death of a man in a hot tub following a party at a home in Bentonville, Arkansas.  Amazon gave the prosecutor subscriber information on the alleged murderer, but is resisting efforts to produce any information that the eavesdropping Alexa might have picked up - while never denying that they keep all of the "data" that is overheard by their household snoops.

Why does Amazon store information that they pick up through the eavesdropping Alexa?  The company sees that material as "data" which then belongs to it and can be sold to others - or used to market Amazon wares to customers.

The prosecutor is building part of his case on information obtained from another smart appliance in the house.  The "smart" hot water heater provided evidence that a lot of hot water was used early on the morning of the murder - perhaps to clean up a crime scene.

So, while it is thirty years on down the road, it looks as though 1984 is finally upon us.  Americans routinely carry around devices - cell phones, GPS, and personal computers - that track their travels, contacts, and the sites they visit on the web.  Now with Alexa, we have invited Big Brother Sister to sit in our living rooms to record our lives.

Storm troopers didn't kick in doors to limit our freedoms - we opened the doors voluntarily and invited them in - and paid for the subjugation.

Just imagine the "data" that Amazon delivery drones will be able to collect!


Meth Swanson said...

...right on Rock...right on...

Meth Swanson said...

...right on Rock...right on...

Xobekim said...

Apple refused government demands to hack an iphone; an accommodation was later made. Microsoft was, is (?), being held in contempt of court for refusing to turn over data stored in Irish servers. Germany has said it will limit use of data from American firms if the data in Ireland is forcibly disclosed by American courts. Microsoft, IBM, and Intel, have refused to hand over the “family jewels” to China.

We are no longer just dealing with the First and Fourth Amendment tensions between privacy and search warrants. In the global economy we are dealing with International Law, the laws of other nations, treaties, and our own federal statutes.

A prosecuting attorney from Arkansas is trained to see this as cut and dried. Amazon’s thing recorded data from a crime scene in Arkansas. “Long arm jurisdiction” of the law and “significant contacts” by Alexa tells the prosecutor that the data must be disclosed. A county’s prosecuting attorney in Arkansas doesn’t have the resources required to litigate the search warrant demands in federal courts and foreign nations. This is a problem.

Mind you, these “tech” companies don’t see the data as belonging to the subscribers of their services. It is their data. In the fine print, which hardly anyone ever reads, in the subscription agreement the subscriber gave up all rights to the data. Amazon, like the other companies, considers this information to be their product. What do companies want for their products? They want to be paid. They will argue that they want to protect the privacy of their customers, as stated in the agreements with them. But when does that contractual obligation end and for how long does it continue?

The topic of “What Data is Discoverable” will no doubt be a must-read by the criminal defense bar as the article soon rolls off the press of a distinguished law review from a prestigious law school.