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"Alexa, please record my private conversations"

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Back in 2014 a helpful new friend entered many of our homes she
tells you when you need to getup in the morning, what the weather is going to
be like today, she picks your favourite music to relax to when you get home
from work and tells you when you need to re-order groceries; she’s not a home
keeper or a personal assistant, in fact she’s not even sentient. She’ called
‘Alexa’, she’s virtual assistant AI technology developed by Amazon which claims
to ease the necessities and constraints of modern life. 100 million Alexa
devices have now been sold worldwide. They ap-pear to be everywhere and represent
the future of 5G user, with device integration reducing the need for human-led
commands to interact with technology. Even ten years ago such advancements in
AI technology seemed inconceivable but yet the global economic pursuit of the 5G
era has pushed the advancement  of
autonomous AI technology ever closer. But with such rapid growth of the AI
market and now with the presence of 100 million Alexa devices in our homes are
they just a fun time saver or is this the beginning of an Orwellian nightmare?

The Alexa device in recent years has raised several concerns
about the technology giant’s ability to harvest, store and analyse our data,
not only are Alexa de-vices waiting to hear a command but they are also
recording and transmitting our private audio to Amazon’s data storage bank.
Then, last year, an even darker side to the Alexa devices broke, not only is
the AI technology listening to what we are saying, but Amazon employees are
too. A month after the scandal broke in March 2019, Amazon were forced to admit
that it is within the company’s ability and remit to recall private
conversations of individuals within their home and that some of these
conversations were even being transcribed by Amazon employees in a data storage
facility in Romania. Amazon claimed in response
to the scandal that “only a fraction of 1 per cent of conversations are heard
by employees, these conversations are anonymised and analysed for the purpose
of checking that the Alexa AI has the ability to understand the commands it is
given.” Having willingly invited Alexa into our homes, we now know what senior
Amazon executives have known for years, that Amazonas an organisation has the
ability to harvest and analyse unprecedented amounts of our personal data.

Professor Shoshana Zuboff of the Harvard Business School now
believes that Amazon is at the fore-front of the way in which customers are
viewed. “Amazon have amassed so much information about us, what we know is only
a pittance of the potential they have to know about us, we are no longer
consumers but a source of raw material.” Only a quarter of a century ago Amazon
was a book retailer based in the garage of Jeff Bezos’ bungalow in Seattle,
today it is the single largest retailer on the globe; in 2018 the company’s
value surpassed $1 trillion. There is only one ac-countable reason for this unprecedented
success and it is the way in which Amazon is uniquely able to analyse and predict
the consumption habits of any individual anywhere in the world. Amazons customer
behaviour research team was thus born and was faced with one over-riding
question: ‘how can we learn more about a person’, the answer the team used
customers’ digital DNA, their clicks, to create digital profiles of them. What we
buy, what we don’t buy, what offers we look for, what as individuals in effect
consume to make us tick. You may be quick to dismiss the process of granular
data collection as merely an-other transaction where we provide  a limited amount of data about our-selves and
in return receive a service that eases the necessities of modern living. This
is far from what is happening today, which is far more invasive and much more
manipulative. Amazon has now aggregated so much consumer data from every demographic
conceivable in society that by 2007 it was even able to predict what we might
want in the future based on the shopping habits of someone like ourselves. Say
for example, you’re a 35 year old male living in an urban location Amazon
hastens of thousands of consumers that are just like you, but maybe three
months ahead of you from  where you are
today and Amazon has all of their search and purchase data too, they can
there-fore anticipate what you are likely to need next. Amazon know who we are
and they present us with things that we like, things that are inherently going to
meet demands but we might not even be conscious about our need for them yet. We
are now in a situation where we are unconscious of the fact we are living in a
‘Big Brother consumerist system’ because the process is undertaken so
perversely.

Amazon has a unique
ability to sell to us in a way that no other retailer can, not only because of
their vast size and economies of scale but also because they have an unprecedented
ability to harvest, analyse and use our personal data to push us towards even
greater consumption. While we might dismiss these  blatant intrusions into our privacy as the
cost of an exceptionally competitive service, the fact still remains that
Amazon is now moving into not quite a wild west, but certainly a largely
unregulated area. There now needs to be an independent review into how big data
is impacting on surveillance and the tolerance of our population to the intrusion
this technology poses to the private arena of our lives.

This intrusion has been personified by the roll out of Alexa
technology into our homes; the invasions of privacy inherent within Alexa are
extreme, the notion that a machine is listening all the time in our homes is a
threat that people should take very seriously, yet all the evidence is that
Alexa is a hit. Amazon’s success is based on its ability to understand what we
will consume before we even consciously know we want to consume it. Not just
Amazon but all big data must now ask itself how far are they willing to breach
basic notions of privacy? How far are Amazon willing to go in the pursuit of
profit? How much are we willing to tolerate just for a cheaper price

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