Amazon spying controversy shows that one way or another, free stuff is always going to be paid for

Today's most creepily Orwellian story is about tech and retail giant Amazon.  A Bloomberg story, picked up by Fox News, says Amazon's Alexa talk-to-the-computer "digital assistant" service, which a lot of us use, has a bunch of listeners-in on the other side.  Far from talking to a machine, as you think you might be doing, you are offering up some reality TV for the hipsters.  And lots of them like to pick up the conversations, the ones that amuse them, and share their recordings of them with all their co-workers on some company bulletin board:

Here's the Fox write-up:

Alexa is like having your own personal assistant that never asks for a raise.  The problem is she's always listening — and so are thousands of Amazon workers, according to a report.

Teams stationed around the world listen to and transcribe recordings, then send them back into the Echo's software to erase the gaps in Alexa's ability to understand speech, a report from Bloomberg said.

Sometimes the workers can even hear chatter in the background while Alexa is on but employees on the team are not authorized to speak about their work, Bloomberg reported.

The employees, who range from contract to full-time, reportedly sign nondisclosure agreements and listen to up to 1,000 audio clips per nine-hour shift.

Although Amazon reportedly has procedures in place for when potential criminal conduct is heard[, t]wo workers in Romania told Bloomberg that they were told it isn't Amazon's job to interfere.  In other cases, the workers said they sometimes use internal chatrooms to share recordings they find amusing.

That fourth paragraph is badly written with insufficient clarity (What the hell are they talking about?), so I went to find the Bloomberg report, which, to slap Fox's hands again, Fox should have linked:

Sometimes they hear recordings they find upsetting, or possibly criminal.  Two of the workers said they picked up what they believe was a sexual assault.  When something like that happens, they may share the experience in the internal chat room as a way of relieving stress.  Amazon says it has procedures in place for workers to follow when they hear something distressing, but two Romania-based employees said that, after requesting guidance for such cases, they were told it wasn't Amazon's job to interfere.

"We take the security and privacy of our customers' personal information seriously," an Amazon spokesman said in an emailed statement.  "We only annotate an extremely small sample of Alexa voice recordings in order [to] improve the customer experience.  For example, this information helps us train our speech recognition and natural language understanding systems, so Alexa can better understand your requests, and ensure the service works well for everyone.

"We have strict technical and operational safeguards, and have a zero tolerance policy for the abuse of our system.

It's creepy stuff, because we don't get a sense of how anyone might be disciplined for breaking the rules, and based on the Bloomberg piece, it sounds as if they are getting dangerously close with that bulletin board used for their own amusement.

We know that law enforcement faces stringent penalties for abuse of data, whether through surveillance (get ready for some fireworks on that junk FISA application with the courts, lawmen), or through the violation of HIPAA health records.  Remember all of those hospital employees who were fired in Chicago for merely viewing the Justin Smollett records out of curiosity — or the ones in Los Angeles who instantly lost their jobs in the more distant Britney Spears mental health issues medical records case?

Sometimes, information has value.  And somehow, when you consider that Romania is the home to some of the world's most prolific hackers, you wonder how stringent privacy safeguards might just be — and whether one of them can find a way to monetize their shared findings from Alexa.  The health workers were fired because the information they illegally accessed, for whatever reason, was a privacy violation.  But it was also worth money, given that tabloids pay a lot for such data.  And there are lots of leakers who never get caught, so we know this sort of thing goes on a lot.

That said, Bloomberg's report is less sensational about what is going on, given that it states that Amazon's purpose is to improve human voice recognition technology, and thus far there have been no breaches of privacy...that we know about.

What it shows here is one thing: you pay for all that free stuff with your privacy — and, ultimately, your freedom.  Alexa is a free service, and people should be free to use it under its stated terms, but it doesn't mean it doesn't get paid.  If you use the "free" Alexa service, you actually pay for it, not with money, but by giving it access to everything you do doing the day, which amounts to what lawyers call 'consideration.' This is something even the state knows it has to be careful about and has laws about to prevent abuses. Amazon is a private company and, well, it does not. Lawmen aren't going to come busting in if one of them leaks your Alexa data to the tabloids or on YouTube for laughs. Worse that could happen is a civil suit and the worker getting fired -- only to turn up at some comparable company. You use Alexa, that's all you've got.

The Millennial mania for socialism and free stuff is probably derived from all of its experiences with so-called free stuff, such as Amazon Alexa. If Alexa can be free, why not education? Why not health care? 

But the Alexa story shows that there really is no free lunch in economics. Amazon's aim is to make its system work smoothly by surveilling and recording conversations. Most of what it records is mundane dreck valuable only to the people speaking it. But every now and then under such surveillance systems, something does turn up with value, such as the Smollett medical records. Will the Amazon safeguards be enough? And on the flip side, is the privacy claimed absolute even if it would solve a crime? One wonders how this all will funnel down as time goes by.

In Venezuela, the free stuff is paid for on an even more striking point on the freedom spectrum - with your vote, as this Cuban doctor medical scandal, recently reported by the New York Times shows. First you pay with privacy, then you pay with votes? Don't be surprised if it eventually comes to that.

Bottom line: You pay for every last thing that's free ... ultimately with your freedom.

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