Sunday, April 30, 2017

Extra Credit: Amazon Echo and The Right to be Forgotten

Years ago, back when was a thing, there was case where a young woman was denied her teaching degree for having posted a drunken photo of herself to the social media site. Of course, this has come to be known as the "drunken pirate" story.

This incident has become not only timeless because it represents, in my opinion, a value judgement on the part of the University which it is not in the position to make; but also because it serves as a modern-day parable about the dangers of sharing content on the internet. One should be careful with what they snap, record, or tweet, lest an employer, the government, or some other entity later use that data as incriminating evidence of committing some petty wrongdoing.

Today, with devices like the Amazon Echo and Google Home, we have yet another circumstance where individuals could be at risk of sharing sensitive information with the internet. In this case, however, the data will come directly from the privacy of their own home; such devices have the potential to record and store our every audible request.

So, naturally, the first question is: How much data can these devices collect? The answer is, at least as far as we know, they only record and store audio which comes after their "command word." This means they won't hear every conversation; but any requests asked to them are as known to the companies of Google and Amazon as any other online search request. They also allow users to delete their data; although most individuals will not know about this feature. And, importantly, the companies would be compliant in a search should the government request it.

But of course, there is the ever-present concern of a 1984 type "Big Brother" situation, where our Amazon Echos and Google Homes conspire against us by supplying a tyrannical government with enough incriminating evidence to jail any known or suspected dissident. This is the nightmare scenario. And indeed, as consumers with little to no knowledge of how these devices actually work, we must place our trust in these organizations that they do as they say they do, and don't instead lie, like our government, and spy on us without our consent. This, of course, gets into the ideas of the consent of the networked, and the general suspicion we should have of the powers of the internet.

I know for me, personally, having an Amazon Echo in my dorm room, I do occasionally wonder what sort of precedent I'm setting for myself. Have my high school English teachers taught me nothing? Have I become as complacent as any other denizen of a distopian society? The idea doesn't sit well with me. But then I have to remind myself, I'm already forfeitting vast amounts of data as is: I use Google Chrome as my browser; I am on Facebook; I have a smartphone with GPS location service features available; that is to say, I'm already well integrated into the data-sharing society. Still, there is something intensely different about an audio recording device like the Echo being allowed into the home. It is in a way to bring a very real and audible presence of an Other -- a corporation, or the government -- into one's private life. Symbolically, it is a big deal; and as a part of my media fast, I unplugged my Amazon Echo; and at least for that period of time, I didn't have to feel so ethically conflicted.

The other issue at hand, tyrannical government and privacy issues aside, is the idea of the right to be forgotten. In the case of the "drunken pirate," that woman's legacy will forever be associated with her story. What many privacy-rights advocates would argue is that far less online activity should be tracked and stored than is currently practiced. I for one fundamentally agree with this idea; the great strength of the internet is its ability to be selectively anonymous. If users want their data to be deleted on their death or deletion of some account, that is their right.

If the lesson of the "drunken pirate" story is to be careful what you share to the internet, then the lesson of the "Amazon Echo" story will be careful what you allow into your home. As technology becomes more and more advanced, we all ought to be more and more wary of whether it is a sensible idea to place such great a degree of trust in technology, business practices, and laws we don't and can't fully understand.

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