" One day in 2017, Alexa went rogue. When Martin Josephson, who lives in London, came home from work, he heard his Amazon Echo Dot voice assistant spitting out fragmentary commands, seemingly based on his previous interactions with the device. It appeared to be regurgitating requests to book train tickets for journeys he had already taken and to record TV shows that he had already watched. Josephson had not said the wake word – “Alexa” – to activate it and nothing he said would stop it. It was, he says, “Kafkaesque”.
This was especially interesting because Josephson (not his real name) was a former Amazon employee. Three years earlier, he had volunteered to sit in a room reciting a string of apparently meaningless phrases into a microphone for an undisclosed purpose. Only when Amazon released the Echo in the US in 2014 did he realise what he had been working on. He bought a Dot, the Echo’s cheaper, smaller model, after it launched in 2016, and found it useful enough until the day it went haywire. When the Dot’s outburst subsided, he unplugged it and deposited it in the bin. “I felt a bit foolish,” he says. “Having worked at Amazon, and having seen how they used people’s data, I knew I couldn’t trust them.”
Without effective regulation, there is no defence against more invasive exploitation of voice assistants. By definition always on, even when they are not awake, the devices are constantly listening, although not always transmitting. Gillula says that there are no technical obstacles to enabling dormant devices to, for example, track users’ television viewing by responding to high-pitched signals embedded in shows and advertisements, or identify who is in the house at any given time. “That essentially becomes constant surveillance,” Gillula says. “I am hopeful that the companies would never go down this dystopian path, but I could see them saying: ‘Oh, it’s a feature: know when your kids are home!’ An appealing feature is how most of these things start.”"
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