Hanukkah begins tomorrow, and with it the annual tradition many of us observe of giving and receiving gifts. And so, as you contemplate what to get your loved ones, permit me one urgent plea: Don’t buy anyone any gadget, no matter how cool, that applies surveillance technology.
You hardly need a Ph.D. in computer science to know what I’m talking about: Amazon’s Alexa, Google Home, and a number of other connected devices all feature always-on microphones that listen to every word you say, and while it may be neat to just sit on your couch and ask some plastic tube to play “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey, the risks to your privacy are too great for any mindful person to bear.
For starters, always-connected devices are always susceptible to hacking. Earlier this fall, a Dutch woman named Rilana Hamer treated herself to a fancy webcam so she could keep an eye on her puppy while she was away at work. She installed it, and, a few minutes later, started hearing some weird whirring sounds. Hamer assumed the device was merely updating its software, so she paid it no mind. Until, that is, a male voice started speaking to her, making it clear that the device had been hacked and that she was now being watched by some creep far away.
Then, there’s the question of just how much of your personal information you’re comfortable sharing with Google, Amazon, and the other tech oligopolies. If you’re online in any real capacity, you’re already, of course, giving our Silicon Valley overlords much more access than you should, but giving them permission to eavesdrop on you as you rummage about your living room in your pajamas is just plain batty. Want to know why? Just ask James Bates.
In November of 2015, a man named Victor Collins was found dead in Bates’ hottub. Bates pled not guilty to first-degree murder. An Amazon Alexa device was found not far from the tub, and the police department petitioned Amazon to share whatever information the machine might’ve recorded. Amazon balked at first, arguing that such demands “inevitably chill users from exercising their First Amendment rights to seek and receive information and expressive content in the privacy of their own home,” which is only sensible if you consider babbling at an app to be protected speech. Later on, however, Amazon reversed its course after Bates gave the company permission to share the data with the police. There are, however, no guarantees that such consent will be sought in the future, by Amazon or any other company, and anyone asking Alexa to check the weather should be aware that everything they say may one day be used against them by any government agency so inclined.
The ACLU knows this, which is why it considers these gadgets a “privacy threat.” And yet, the tech giants don’t seem to care very much: Earlier this year, Amazon hinted that it may give app developers access to Alexa audio recordings, which Google already does with its competing device, to the immense detriment of user privacy.
And so, for the love of God, buy your friends and family anything else but these Trojan horses that trade away more of your liberty for a pittance of futuristic sound and fury. And if you’re still not sure what to get, supporting your favorite Jewish publication is always the right choice.
Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.