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Spy in the camp...

By Jackie Beedie

What if I told you it is possible you have a device in your house capable of listening to all your conversations, recording them and sending them to the cloud, so they can be interpreted by sophisticated algorithms that determine what you are talking about – and sent to organisations that want to know.

I am not talking about a mobile phone, which can be configured to do this as well but not so easily.

I am talking about Amazon’s Alexa and similar devices such as Google Home.

Digital assistants, as they are called, were the must-have devices that were purchased and given as presents this Christmas.

So much so that Amazon’s Alexa servers crashed on Christmas Day due to the sheer number of new devices being plugged in.

Take a minute to think what the device does.

It listens, all the time.

When it hears its “wake” word it starts to record what you say and sends it to servers, so that Artificial Intelligence (AI) can work out what you want and send the appropriate response or connect you to the requested site.

It is, in effect, a microphone in your house that is connected to the Internet – and you purchased it and installed it yourself!

Who is listening?

Well, for one Amazon or Google, or whichever company’s device you bought.

I don’t doubt for a minute that the NSA, CIA and GCHQ also have the ability to tap into your device and listen to you.

In general, though, spy agencies will need to have a reason to be listening to you.

So if you are not plotting criminal or seditious activities, you probably don’t need to worry about them.

The main reason these devices are listening to you is nothing more sinister than targeted advertising.

If you have one, try an experiment.

Ask it where you can buy a specific item, then see what is on your recommended list the next time you log onto that company’s website.

You may even start getting e-mails about it.

Amazon holds patents on algorithms that can transcribe your speech and recognise when you are talking about products or services, so they can bombard you with targeted advertising.

Alexa has already been involved in court cases and Amazon has been ordered to hand over recordings made in a house where two women were murdered, as well as another house where a man was murdered.

Don’t think that just because you don’t say the wake word, it will not record you.

Depending on your accent, the device can mistake other words for it, wake up unintentionally and start to record.

I have a niece called Alexa and her parents have changed their wake word to something else.

However, whenever she visits another house that has one and someone says her name, off it goes.

But if you do not have an Alexa or any other digital assistant, don’t think you are safe.

Amazon and Google have already entered into agreements with many other household appliance manufacturers to load the device into theirs.

Do you have a Kindle? Yep, it’s on there as well.

Perhaps go through each room shouting: “Alexa! What is the time?”

You may well get an answer from an unexpected source.

If not then you are probably safe, for now.

It may well be long past 1984, but Big Brother is definitely here now – and listening.

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