The greater threat: NSA or Alexa?

So let me start by saying that, in my view, Edward Snowden is not any kind of hero, didn’t provide any great service to the country, not even “start a national discussion”, and barely qualifies as a whistleblower. I think he’s a self-involved, cowardly little piss-ant who broke some laws and then fled to countries where government conducts far more pervasive and intrusive surveillance than he was accusing the NSA of doing. The fact that he chose Glenn Greenwald to “leak” to really says it all.

The Justice Department claims he compromised our national security efforts and put agents at risk by revealing the techniques and extent of NSA eavesdropping, which Snowden claims was illegal.  They want him to return for trial or to try to negotiate a plea, which, for a less cowardly individual, would be the perfect platform to make his heroic case to the public.

The whole thing seems silly to me at this point. It’s hard for me to imagine that the NSA is learning anything about us that we aren’t already happily giving away in exchange for some “conveniences”. We’re even paying for the privilege.

Say you use Gmail to send a message to your friend asking if he has an outdoor wifi camera.  You will see ads popping up for wifi camera deals the next time you use Google for searching. Every email you send or receive is being viewed, saved, and analyzed by Google. You opted in to this by using Gmail (and by not encrypting your messages).

The Uber app wants you to agree to let it know your location for a time before they pick you up and after they let you off. In other words, you’ll be giving them permission to know where you are all the time. Do I think that anyone who now relies on Uber  is going to refuse this and lose the convenience? Of course not.

I got an Echo from Amazon recently. You talk to it and it plays music, adjusts your thermostat, buys stuff, orders a Pizza or a ride, searches the web, and does a lot of other tricks.  When you say the word “Alexa”, it wakes up and does what you ask.  Of course this means it’s always listening for you to say the word.

Always listening and always recording everything said in your household, if that’s what Amazon, or some rogue employee, chooses for it to do. Or if the government wants Amazon to help it solve crimes or prevent terrorism. To make you feel a little better,  Alexa turns itself off if you ask whether the NSA is listening right now, or at least that’s what it appears to do.

And of course, there’s hacking. The information is out there in the cloud, waiting for our government, some other government, or some fourteen year old kid to come for it, even if Amazon or Google or Yahoo or Microsoft or Uber or whoever refuses to hand it over. And corporations care a lot less about securing their data (i.e. your data) than you might think – security is not a profit center and no one can really tell them for sure if they’re doing it right anyway. Yahoo let credentials for a billion accounts go out the door while trying not to. The game is already over. We lost.

My thesis here is that we’ve already given up virtually all privacy, so it really doesn’t matter much what the NSA does by way of legal or illegal eavesdropping.

I totally understand that there is a distinction between voluntarily giving information to a corporation that wants to sell us stuff and has no power to put us in jail, versus being secretly surveilled by a government agency that can ruin our lives. I’m arguing that in the world of total connectivity, lax security, and highly motivated governments and private parties, it’s a distinction without a difference.


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