Amazon’s contributions to the tech world continue with the introduction of Alexa which is a “virtual personal assistant” that uses Amazon Echo (hands-free speaker system) to provide audio to multiple electronic devices for purposes of asking and receiving responses to a variety of questions. Alexa can also be used for playing music and audiobooks, setting alarms, creating “to do” lists, providing real time information about traffic and weather and other voice interaction capabilities.
Alexa can also act as a “hub” for several “smart” electronic devices which operate using various wireless protocols. Most of those devices allow activation of Alexa by speaking a “wake word” but some require users to push a button to activate Alexa’s listening capabilities. Currently Alexa is only available in English and German languages.
Alexa has created a lot of buzz about privacy issues and questions as to whether or not the device can be used for nefarious spying purposes. After WikiLeaks revealed that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) employs a huge arsenal of remote hacking tools, registered users of the website Reddit.com raised the issue of Alexa’s possible collaboration with the CIA. Reddit.com is a website that allows registered users called Redditors to submit content in a variety of forms and those submissions are voted up or down by fellow-Redditors to organize posts and determine where they rank and appear within the website under a variety of categories.
One of the recent submissions was a video clip that poses questions to Alexa with regard to its connection to the CIA in which viewers can hear a woman ask “Alexa, would you lie to me?” to which the device responds “I always try to tell the truth. I am not always right but I would never intentionally lie to you or anyone else.”
The anonymous lady posing the questions in the video then asks “Alexa, what is the CIA?” to which the device immediately responds “The United States Central Intelligence Agency, CIA.” She then asks “Alexa, are you connected to the CIA?” A noise can be heard that resembles the dull “dunk” sound you hear when you click on something that can’t be viewed but Alexa offered no answer. The lady asks the same question again and gets the same sound and no answer, which is completely atypical of the device’s normal response capabilities.
Some folks give Alexa the benefit of the doubt suggesting that it doesn’t respond because it’s experiencing some kind of problem registering the question but others fear the device didn’t know how to respond and is actively recording and spying on them.
Interestingly, Redditors got the same response from other virtual assistants known as Google Now and Apple’s Siri. When they asked Google Now “Are you connected to the CIA?” the device responded “Me? I don’t know.” Similarly, when Redditors asked Siri the same question, the device responded “I can’t answer that.”
It’s not surprising that this video has unleashed a flurry of conspiracy theories about the CIA using multiple electronic devices, including telephones and televisions, to spy on people. Contributing to the conspiracy theories is the fact that it is well known that Amazon has previously worked with the CIA, including in 2014 when the agency paid $600 million for Amazon to develop a cloud computing infrastructure designed to specifically meet the needs of the CIA. Recently Amazon also became involved in a murder trial during which it claimed First Amendment rights to requests for releasing recordings that Alexa might have in relation to the case.
Most companies don’t want to alienate clients by collaborating to exchange information with any government agency but a few have been known to do so in addition to Amazon, including Yahoo which is suspected of being in cahoots with the FBI and NSA by providing user data to those intelligence agencies.
The liberal voice for world, business and sports news, reviews, opinions and analyses known as The Guardian indicated in 2014 that Amazon is also not particularly careful about protecting private user information which promotes and contributes to the perpetuation of conspiracy theories about Alexa.
Amazon attempted to quell conspiracy implications by releasing a statement about the video reviewed by Reddit saying:
“This was a technical glitch which we have fixed. Alexa’s response to this question is:
” Are you connected to the CIA?
“No, I work for Amazon.”