-- Have you seen the Geico ad with the talking parrot? A 19th-century ship is boarded and the captain is surrounded by pirates. The leader shouts, “Let’s feed him to the sharks,” (pirate cheers and swords held high) “and take all his gold” (more cheers). The parrot repeats these lines, and adds, “and hide it from the crew. They’re all morons anyway.”
The price is your privacy.
In November 2015, a former Georgia police officer named Victor Collins was found floating facedown in a hot tub owned by Bentonville resident James Andrew Bates. There were traces of blood at the scene, and a coroner later determined that Collins had died of strangulation and partial drowning. There was physical evidence at the scene, but the prosecutor wanted to know if there was more information captured by the Amazon Echo that had been streaming music when Collins died. There was the possibility that the device had stored 60 seconds, which is what it is equipped to do, and that it might still be on the physical device. Amazon declined to help with the investigation. (Amazon did not respond to Credit.com’s repeated requests for comment.)
Why This Raises Questions
It should be said that the producers of digital assistants aren’t trying to create a better pirate parrot. They aren’t in the business of mindless repetition. They are in the business of learning more about you so they can sell you things, or helping others do that, or selling what they know about you to a third party that can use it to make money.
There is so much information potentially. Consumers use digital assistants to help with travel, email and messages; they listen to music, check out sports scores and the weather. They can keep a calendar in order, post to social media, translate documents and search the internet. (When it comes to criminals, these devices could be seen as the digital equivalent of a stupid accomplice.)
Murder isn’t the best backdrop for discussions about privacy, but unfortunately the protections guaranteed by our courts is nowhere in evidence at the consumer level, so it is often the mise-en-scéne for this kind at article.
If you’re a parrot, you repeat things. If you’re an Amazon Echo at a murder scene, you give rise to serious questions about the expectation of privacy in a consumer landscape that has turned personal preference into a commodity. Increasingly geared toward the conveniences of radical personalization, a digital assistant knows how you like things in your home, but given the inevitability of hacking and data compromises, that means that at least potentially all that information could be used against you — and not just in your personal battle to resist temptation in the marketplace and save money.
The digital assistant as a privacy issue may not be a problem for you — some people feel they have nothing to hide — but it is for sure something consumers need to think about before transmitting their lives to the cloud where it may be only a matter of time, or bad luck, before a hacker streams it for laughs or loot.
Adam Levin is co-founder of Credit.com and IDT911. His experience as former director of the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs gives him unique insight into consumer privacy, legislation and financial advocacy. He is a nationally recognized expert on identity theft and credit, and is the author of SWIPED: How to Protect Yourself in a World Full of Scammers, Phishers, and Identity Thieves.
Any opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author.