Big Brother

What to Know About Big Brother Technology

Let’s admit it: We have all been completely and utterly duped into allowing ourselves to be constantly surveilled.

In other words, we’ve managed to find ourselves in a situation where nearly every conversation we have is within earshot of a microphone. And not just any microphone, but one that is connected to automated systems which can parse speech and make decisions.

I’m not just talking about smart speakers like Alexa. Phones and laptops are internet-connected recording devices that accompany nearly every American over the age of 13 almost everywhere.

To use their iPhones, some people are happy to trade an algorithm’s recognition of their faces for the convenience of not having to type in a four-digit code.

Are we really okay with this? Why aren’t people protesting in the streets?

Is it because the tradeoff is worth it? Is it because asking Alexa to tell you the weather, to play any music you can imagine, or to summon an NPR flash briefing on command is worth the risk of compromising our most private conversations?

Does the benefit of having the entire knowledge of civilization at your fingertips, the ability to communicate with anyone wherever you go, and other mind-boggling capabilities of an iPhone outweigh the risks of being constantly monitored?

Facial Recognition

Ubiquitous cameras and microphones are only part of our current exposure to monitoring. The other hazard is the proliferation of databases and algorithms that, for those who might benefit from them, may be too tempting to stay away from.

Federal law enforcement is undoing any effort you may have taken to keep your face private. The Government Accountability Office recently detailed efforts by the FBI to access drivers licenses for the purpose of building a massive facial recognition database. It appears ICE is following their lead.

The city of Detroit is getting in on the action too: Its highly-touted Project Green Light crime deterrent program, which placed thousands of cameras around the city, has taken an Orwellian turn. The city is able to use software against 50 million photographs in drivers licenses and mugshots to identify people in and around the city.

If you’re using Apple’s Face ID to unlock your phone and make purchases, consider the implications on your digital privacy. Apple claims Face ID data doesn’t leave your device and does not get transmitted to the company unless for support purposes. But would anyone be shocked if a trove of Face ID data surfaced online, as has happened with hundreds of millions of unencrypted Facebook passwords?

Facial recognition, at this point, is for sale. Amazon offers it as a service called “Rekognition.” All you need is some cash and coding skills, and you can tap into this toolset yourself.

Digital Eavesdropping

If you unplug your Amazon Alexa because you’re concerned it could listen and record your conversation, you’re not being paranoid. You are being prudent.

It turns out Amazon is recording your conversations after all. Once you speak the “wake word,” it’s game on. The problem is, as anyone who owns one of these smart speakers will tell you, wake word recognition is not 100% reliable. Although Amazon continues to improve wake word reliability, the device can activate in unpredictable situations, and when it does, it records what it hears and sends it to Amazon for processing.

On one occasion, Amazon sent a recording of someone’s private conversation in an email to another customer. Oops! And in the pursuit of fine-tuning their voice recognition software, Amazon engineers routinely listen to conversations, often with location information associated with the originating devices.

If you’ve noticed that private conversations end up with suspiciously relevant ads on your Facebook feed, you’re not being paranoid. As covered in Vice, one cybersecurity expert concludes: “From time to time, snippets of audio do go back to other apps (like Facebook’s servers) but there’s no official understanding what the triggers for that are. Whether it’s timing or location-based or usage of certain functions, apps are certainly pulling those microphone permissions and using those periodically.”

Even if we trust our Big Tech overlords to do the right thing and handle our data with respect, mistakes can and do happen. Earlier this year, Apple confirmed a bug where users of FaceTime could listen in on other iPhones simply by initiating a call. If the person you’re calling didn’t pick up, you could hear what they were saying and see video from their phone. An attorney in Houston sued Apple over this breach of confidentiality.

Staying Safe

Awareness is half the battle. Every time you use a piece of technology that requires a camera or microphone, especially if it can be connected to the Internet, assume it can be used to monitor you.

Realize that if you have a lot of connected devices in your home or office such as Nest thermostats (a.k.a. Internet of Things), you’re under constant observation.

Unplug Alexa when you’re not using it. Don’t leave the device on all day long. And if you don’t want Amazon listening to your conversations to fine-tune their AI, prevent them from doing so by turning off “Help develop new features” and “Use messages to improve transcriptions.”

Don’t use Face ID. There’s no need to. Learn how to “Reset Face ID,” and turn off the “Attention Aware” features, which track whether or not your eyes are looking at your phone.

Get involved with your local politicians to limit or ban government use of facial recognition technology. San Francisco and Somerville, Massachusetts have blazed this trail, so you can learn from their examples—or move there.

You can also get involved with organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation or Fight for the Future. The latter organization’s online petition on banning facial recognition software is a good place to start.

Keep in mind that surveillance does not end with audio and video. What you click on and search is monitored as well. Google’s popular Chrome browser, which has the largest market share of any browser, allows for web trackers that surveil your surfing habits. Use this Duck Duck Go plugin for Chrome to increase your privacy when browsing.

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