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Amazon Echo: How 2016 tech is bringing us closer to 1984

Amazon has launched a voice-enabled virtual assistant that will be "constantly listening" inside your home. 

It’s not clever or original to compare modern technology to the dystopian surveillance devices imagined in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Thankfully, the UK launch of Amazon Echo earlier today means comparison is no longer necessary. The “constantly listening” smart speaker is not alike to Orwell’s Party-monitoring telescreen, it is it. Both devices are designed to simultaneously broadcast entertainment and listen in on your conversations. Yet one is the tyrannical tool of an authoritarian dictatorship and the other is available for £149.99 – plus £4.75 postage and packaging – on Amazon today.

Amazon Echo is a masterful piece of technology. The wireless speaker uses voice recognition to obey various commands and answer your questions. Unlike Siri, Echo’s personal assistant Alexa will answer your questions in full, intelligent sentences, instead of giving you a series of links. It can play your music, read your books, tell you the weather forecast, and plan your commute. If you have other smart devices in your home, it can switch on your lights, open your garage door, and adjust your thermostat. But everyone is too busy celebrating what the device can do to spare a thought for what it should be doing.

“People don’t seem to understand that smart devices start off stupid and they only become smart by the information we give them,” says Renate Samson, the chief executive of Big Brother Watch, an organisation that protects individual privacy by exposing the surveillance state. Amazon Echo only had 13 skills in November 2014, and it now has over 3,000. Amazon readily admit the device has improved by recording, storing, and analysing data on the things its users say to Alexa. Although this data is currently only used to improve the product, David Limp, the senior vice president of devices at Amazon, tells me it may be used for targeted advertising in the future. “Hypothetical questions are hard,” he says, “But we’re not doing that today.” However, if you use the device to connect with another company – for example, Uber – then that company can also store your data and use it however it wishes.

Amazon haven’t, of course, ignored these issues. “You can’t think about privacy as an afterthought of this product,” said Limp in a two-minute long segment on privacy during the product’s hour-long launch, “it has to be built into the foundation of the product itself.” This built-in privacy is the option to mute the speaker, something Limp describes as akin to cutting the wires on the microphones. When muted, the light ring on the device goes red, and nothing you say will be streamed to the cloud. When listening to a command, the light is blue, but although the device doesn’t record anything said before the wake word “Alexa”, it is still, in Limp’s words, “constantly listening” out for its name.

“Amazon have realised that people don’t want to mute a device that’s meant to listen in,” says Samson. Although the company have a secondary privacy feature – the ability to delete everything Alexa has uploaded to the cloud via an app – the onus is once again on the individual. And, as Samson notes, "this is a device that people who aren’t fretful about their privacy will find desirable.” 

The sophisticated technology also means the device can listen to you in unprecedented ways. “Far Field” voice recognition enables it to hear you from across the room, and “beam forming” means the device singles out which of its seven microphones is pointed towards you, amplifies the sound, and supresses that of the other mics. As such, Echo can hear you even when loud music is playing. “Echo spatial perception” means that if you have lots of the devices – or the smaller, cheaper Echo Dot, which Amazon sells in six and 12 packs – only the one nearest will respond. In theory, then, the device knows which room you are in and when.

But so what if Amazon is listening? After all, you’re not having super-secret criminal meetings, and hey, targeted advertising just means you get better recommendations for egg-slicers, right?

“Lots of people think they have nothing to hide or nothing to fear but when your data is you as a human being, everyone has something to hide,” says Samson. “It’s not because it’s secretive, it’s because taken out of context it could be very misconstrued.” This is already evident in the way Google search histories are used in courts. “Individuals and groups should be able to communicate freely without it being accessed by invisible beings. This technology does exactly that. None of us really understand the broader implications of that.”

But Amazon aren’t alone. Smart devices increasingly come with cameras and microphones that can’t be disabled, and Samsung faced backlash last year after it their Smart TV listened in on conversations and shared the data with third parties. Big Brother Watch are also concerned about Mattel’s Hello Barbie, a doll which records conversations children have with it that their parents can then listen to. “We felt that that was an absolutely massive attack on a child’s ability to play,” says Samson.

All of this is to say nothing about the concern of such devices being hacked. “I would never say never,” says Limp, borrowing from Justin Bieber when asked whether this could happen. But not only could your data potentially be breached, others may potentially find a way to listen in. “Mark Zuckerberg covers the camera and mic up on his computer, so they are privacy and security concerns even for people who think you should share everything,” says Samson. “The irony of that isn’t lost on any of us.”

“Fast forward to the world where the smart home is controlled by your voice, you will see it as delightful,” said Limp as he concluded his presentation. Maybe, yes. But they’ll have to throw me in Room 101 first.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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Clickbaiting terror: what it’s like to write viral news after a tragedy

Does the viral news cycle callously capitalise on terrorism, or is it allowing a different audience to access important news and facts?

On a normal day, Alex* will write anywhere between five to ten articles. As a content creator for a large viral news site, they [Alex is speaking under the condition of strict anonymity, meaning their gender will remain unidentified] will churn out multiple 500-word stories on adorable animals, optical illusions, and sex. “People always want to read about sexuality, numbers of sexual partners, porn habits and orgasms,” says Alex. “What is important is making the content easily-digestible and engaging.”

Alex is so proficient at knowing which articles will perform well that they frequently “seek stories that fit a certain template”. Though the word “clickbait” conjures up images of cute cat capers, Alex says political stories that “pander to prejudices” generate a large number of page views for the site. Many viral writers know how to tap into such stories so their takes are shared widely – which explains the remarkably similar headlines atop many internet articles. “This will restore your faith in humanity,” could be one; “This one weird trick will change your life…” another. The most cliché example of this is now so widely mocked that it has fallen out of favour:

You’ll never believe what happened next.

When the world stops because of a tragedy, viral newsrooms don’t. After a terrorist attack such as this week’s Manchester Arena bombing, internet media sites do away with their usual stories. One day, their homepages will be filled with traditional clickbait (“Mum Sickened After Discovery Inside Her Daughter’s Easter Egg”, “This Man’s Blackhead Removal Technique Is A Complete And Utter Gamechanger”) and the next, their clickbait has taken a remarkably more tragic tone (“New Footage Shows Moment Explosion Took Place Inside Manchester Arena”, “Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Bruno Mars and More React to the Manchester Bombing”).

“When a terrorist event occurs, there’s an initial vacuum for viral news,” explains Alex. Instead of getting reporters on the scene or ringing press officers like a traditional newsroom, Alex says viral news is “conversation-driven” – meaning much of it regurgitates what is said on social media. This can lead to false stories spreading. On Tuesday, multiple viral outlets reported – based on Facebook posts and tweets – that over 50 accompanied children had been led to a nearby Holiday Inn. When BuzzFeed attempted to verify this, a spokesperson for the hotel chain denied the claim.

Yet BuzzFeed is the perfect proof that viral news and serious news can coexist under the same roof. Originally famed for its clickable content, the website is now home to a serious and prominent team of investigative journalists. Yet the site has different journalists on different beats, so that someone writes about politics and someone else about lifestyle or food.

Other organisations have a different approach. Sam* works at another large viral site (not Buzzfeed) where they are responsible for writing across topics; they explains how this works:  

“One minute you're doing something about a tweet a footballer did, the next it's the trailer for a new movie, and then bam, there's a general election being called and you have to jump on it,” they say.

Yet Sam is confident that they cover tragedy correctly. Though they feel viral news previously used to disingenuously “profiteer” off terrorism with loosely related image posts, they say their current outlet works hard to cover tragic news. “It’s not a race to generate traffic,” they say, “We won't post content that we think would generate traffic while people are grieving and in a state of shock, and we're not going to clickbait the headlines to try and manipulate it into that for obvious reasons.”

Sam goes as far as to say that their viral site in fact has higher editorial standards than “some of the big papers”. Those who might find themselves disturbed to see today’s explosions alongside yesterday’s cats will do well to remember that “traditional” journalists do not always have a great reputation for covering tragedy.

At 12pm on Tuesday, Daniel Hett tweeted that over 50 journalists had contacted him since he had posted on the site that his brother, Martyn, was missing after the Manchester attack. Hett claimed two journalists had found his personal mobile phone number, and he uploaded an image of a note a Telegraph reporter had posted through his letterbox. “This cunt found my house. I still don't know if my brother is alive,” read the accompanying caption. Tragically it turned out that Martyn was among the bomber's victims.

Long-established newspapers and magazines can clearly behave just as poorly as any newly formed media company. But although they might not always follow the rules, traditional newspapers do have them. Many writers for viral news sites have no formal ethical or journalistic training, with little guidance provided by their companies, which can cause problems when tragic news breaks.

It remains to be seen whether self-policing will be enough. Though false news has been spread, many of this week’s terror-focused viral news stories do shed light on missing people or raise awareness of how people can donate blood. Many viral news sites also have gigantic Facebook followings that far outstrip those of daily newspapers – meaning they can reach more people. In this way, Sam feels their work is important. Alex, however, is less optimistic.

“My personal view is that viral news does very little to inform people at times like this and that trending reporters probably end up feeling very small about their jobs,” says Alex. “You feel limited by the scope of your flippant style and by what the public is interested in.

“You can end up feeding the most divisive impulses of an angry public if you aren’t careful about what conversations you’re prompting. People switch onto the news around events like this and traffic rises, but ironically it’s probably when trending reporters go most into their shells and into well-worn story formats. It’s not really our time or place, and to try and make it so feels childish.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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