It’s uncharacteristic of me to embrace a new technology, as I’m not looking for more frustrations and reasons to talk to someone overseas after waiting on hold for an eternity “due to heavier call volume.” These days if I want to watch Netflix, I must unplug my television, turn my receiver on and off, and reboot my Roku. My universal remote hasn’t worked in years, but I prefer the inconvenience of manual operation than the frustration of waiting to talk to someone in the Philippines who likely won’t understand my issue, let alone know how to resolve it.
Despite my technophobic mindset, I was an early adopter of Amazon’s voice assistant Echo, affectionately known as Alexa. The engineers responsible for the product’s development did an impressive job making the product so user friendly that even I could master the functionality without multiple calls to Cousin Rob. Alexa has been sitting on my kitchen counter for years, and her Echo Dot offspring are scattered in other areas of my home.
I use Alexa for convenience, and sometimes for my amusement. She’s proven herself reliable for wakeup calls and as a cooking timer, as well as a quick information resource. Alexa also helps keep me grounded; I often think about moving back to Michigan, but when I do, I immediately ask Alexa, “What’s the average temperature in Detroit in January?” or “Who’s Michigan’s attorney general?” and the relocation urge quickly passes.
I long perceived Alexa as harmless, someone who speaks when spoken to and then minds her own business. But in recent months, Alexa began hustling me to buy things. As I recall, the first incident was when I asked her for a wakeup call, and she suggested I might want a recording made by a celebrity. I’m not into celebrities, so the offer just seemed like a random pitch.
Alexa gradually got more aggressive with her hucksterism. When I asked her simple questions, she’d answer them and then give a sales pitch for some offer available on Amazon or a product she’d gladly order. I experimented with various commands instructing Alexa to stop pimping products, and for a few weeks it appeared the message registered. But the other day, when I asked Alexa to set the timer for 10 minutes so I could practice silent meditation, she made me an offer that went something like this:
“Based on your interests, would you like me to send you notices and updates on the writer William Zinsser?”
Zinsser, a former writer and critic for the New York Herald Tribune, was the author of On Writing Well, a book whose counsel I’ve greatly benefitted from. I’ve read multiple editions of the book over the years, and derived valuable insights each time. I’ve recommended the book to countless people with the guarantee that it will improve their writing. For those who still value the power of the written word, it’s a must read.
William Zinsser died in 2015, and his passing at 92 warranted an obituary in the New York Times. (Imagine the pressure writing an obit about someone who wrote the definitive book on good writing.) It seems reasonable to assume there won’t be any more updates on Zinsser unless Alexa has afterlife connections Amazon hasn’t yet disclosed.
What alarmed me was how Alexa knew Zinsser ranked among my favorite authors. I ordered On Writing Well on Amazon years ago as a gift for a Michigan source, but I’ve since ordered countless other books, none of them having to do with writing improvement.
I discovered this week that Alexa isn’t the innocent I perceived, and that Amazon is an even more ethically challenged company than I imagined. I owe this discovery to Google, which I’ve long known has been clandestinely monitoring my activities, but I didn’t appreciate to the alarming degree.
Google’s home page has become my first read every morning, as the dozen or so stories the technology company continuously curates for me throughout the day are invariably of great interest. In a recent Google news feed was this MarketWatch story that the European Union is investigating Amazon’s $1.7 billion acquisition of iRobot, the maker of Roomba, the robot vacuum cleaner I’ve been using for years and also perceived as an innocuous product.
Here’s how Google knew about my interest in Amazon’s purchase of iRobot. The other day I planned to mention the women CEOs I most admire and Helen Greiner, the co-founder and former president of iRobot, was on the list. I learned about Greiner’s decisive leadership reading this IBD story and recalled that Amazon had acquired the company. I did a Google search to determine when the deal closed. It hasn’t and Senator Elizabeth Warren and other Congressional members have called on the FTC to block it.
The MarketWatch story made mention that European regulators were concerned about Roomba’s ability to take pictures as it moves about a home. Curious as to the basis of that concern, I did a search and stumbled on this December 2022 story published in the MIT Technology Review, which served as a wake-up call as to how technology companies seek to invade the privacy of their unsuspecting customers.
The Technology Review obtained 15 photos snapped by development versions of iRobot’s Roomba J7 series robot vacuum, which included a young woman on the toilet, her face blocked in the lead image but unobscured in other grainy shots. In another image, a young boy is clearly visible, sprawled on his stomach across a hallway floor. The boy seems amused by the object that recorded him.
The Technology Review said the photos it obtained were shared on social media by freelancers working for Scale AI, a startup that employs low-paid contract workers around the world to label audio, photo, and video data used to train artificial intelligence.
Of course, iRobot assured the Technology Review there was nothing to be concerned about.
The company said the images were taken by “special development robots with hardware and software modifications that are not and never were present on iRobot consumer products for purchase.” The company also insisted that the Roombas that recorded the images were labeled with a bright green sticker that read “video recording in progress,” and users were instructed to “remove anything they deem sensitive from any space the robot operates in, including children.”
The Technology Review published this follow-up story on January 10 saying the publication had been contacted by some of the Roomba testers who believed they were misled about what they agreed to.
Amazon last fall announced an initiative enabling companies to craft the answers Alexa gives about their products’ capabilities and advantages, an opportunity clearly designed to boost Amazon’s sales.
“With this new capability, we have made it easier for brands to connect with customers to help answer common questions and better inform their purchase decisions,” said Rajiv Mehta, general manager of Alexa Shopping at Amazon.
Researching this post, I learned that Alexa records and transcribes everything that is said to her, and that Amazon employees listen to a small portion of recordings to verify accuracy, potentially exposing private conversations and information to those employees. CNET published a primer on how to delete recordings and transcripts, but it’s dishonest that the onus is on Alexa users to protect their privacy. The onus should be on Amazon to request explicit permission to violate it. No doubt Alexa’s terms of service include a disclosure, but only class action attorneys read that sort of stuff.
Amazon has agreed to acquire One Medical, a chain of primary care offices increasingly staffed by inexperienced nurse practitioners and physician assistants. I’ve previously warned that deal shouldn’t be allowed because of the damage it will do to healthcare. When I wrote the commentary, I didn’t appreciate how Alexa could fit into the picture.
Amazon has also expanded into the pharmacy business, and nurse practitioners and physician assistants are known to write more prescriptions. That means one could see a One Medical pretend doctor, have their script filled by Amazon pharmacy, and if say a patient was diagnosed with the flu or a cold, Alexa could offer to ship some antihistamines, tissues, and perhaps some organic chicken soup from Whole Foods.
If the NP or PA advised to get a Covid vaccine, Pfizer could possibly be responsible for addressing issues and concerns posed to Alexa.
Roomba is already integrated into Alexa. Amazon also owns Ring, the video doorbell and security company, so if Amazon is allowed to acquire iRobot, it would have the capability to clean and secure your home, but also know the comings and goings of family and friends who visit. If you have a party, Ring could alert Alexa you need more cleaning supplies.
There are many tech lovers who love this sort of sci-fi stuff, but I’m not one of them. I long for a simpler world where I can watch TV with the flick of a button and the only people who know about my interests and activities are those with whom I’ve deliberately shared the information.