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Other Things That Listen

Devices that listen and respond are becoming increasing common. Voice activation is’t a new thing and moved from science fiction to technical feasibility some time ago. Arguably, many conceptions of magic and perhaps some of prayer use the voice as an active way of giving a reality changing command although perhaps that is getting too esoteric. However, it is becoming hard to avoid. When I upgraded my MacBook to macOS Sierra back in September, Apple’s ‘digital assistant’ Siri was placed front and centre; this Christmas, Amazon’s Echo and Dot devices have been top sellers.

In many ways this is a boon but it has certain risks too. One was recently revealed in San Diego. The story goes that a young girl ordered a dolls house just by speaking to “Alexa”, the name of the assistant inside the Echo. It responds to human voices rather than just your voice so, if you don’t turn off the default settings that are very keen to link you to Amazon’s catalogue and if you have 1-Click ordering enabled, other people can buy things as easily as if you painted your bank card details on your living room wall. Easier, in fact, because they don’t even have to consciously try to buy things on your account! In a corollary that is amusing from a safe distance, the story was reported on the local TV news and lots of people who had a new Echo within earshot of the TV found that they had a new dolls house on the way just after the presenter read out “Alexa, buy me a dolls house”!

The technology can have positive applications. I know a registered blind person who got one recently and is loving the ability to listen to the radio or his choice of music without having to feel his way around. However,¬†owners should definitely think about security. Turn off the ability to easily spend your money and get in the habit of turning off the microphones when you aren’t going to be using them.

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