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. 

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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 freelance journalist, and was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. She tweets at @ameliargh