Tech listening

Technology like virtual assistants like Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa may be listening to conversations to collect personal data more than big tech companies want folks to believe.

“Data is the new oil,” said Joshua Wakefield, a local technology expert, and big tech companies will collect it by whatever means they have at their disposal.

Amazon claims that their virtual assistant, Alexa, whether used with Echo speakers or installed as an app on a smartphone, only listens after an activation word has been spoken.

That is unlikely.

“If you say, ‘Alexa’, how did it know you said ‘Hey, Alexa’? Well, it has to be always listening,” said Wakefield, director of information technology for the Juniata Valley School District. “I know there have been occasions where Alexa has recorded conversations and delivered them either to Amazon or other recipients.”

Wakefield, like many commentators on the current technological situation, takes it as a given that companies are collecting individuals’ personal data.

“It’s not like we’re banging these drums out of paranoia. We know it’s happening. It’s data collection in general. Big tech is collecting data points on everything. It’s no wonder Facebook has been before Congress multiple times, but we like Facebook so we put up with it. It’s no coincidence when you go shopping on Amazon and then you go to your Facebook feed and it just so happens that what you were just looking at on Amazon is on your Facebook feed and wouldn’t you know it, it’s on sale.”

Apart from listening to conversations, most all online activity can be mined for personal data.

“You can get info from your Facebook likes, from your Google searches, from your Amazon shopping, all different places, to customize advertising just for you. It’s a very creepy prospect. I don’t like that,” said Wakefield. “How much of my own data should I have ownership over? Is this ethical?”

Wakefield thinks consumers have to put pressure on these companies on a large scale.

“It has to be a cultural change. We have to realize what our data is worth and demand these companies act responsibly. As a society we haven’t kept pace with the amount of change tech has brought. I love tech but when these disruptive technologies bring in these changes carte blanche, it’s not good for anyone. The concern is because of the tech integration in our houses we’re ceding our privacy and we don’t even realize this, older generations wouldn’t have ever considered doing what we’re doing in giving away our privacy,” he said.

To get big tech companies to listen, they have to be spoken to in their own language: money.

“You have to say, ‘We won’t participate or spend our money until you start guaranteeing privacy or are more transparent,’ until culturally we make those statements, nothing is going to happen.”

A few days before Thanksgiving, the FBI released a statement warning consumers to be wary of smart TV’s that can connect to the internet, allowing for online streaming and apps.

A number of these TV’s have built-in cameras and the FBI suggested knowing exactly what features a TV has and to make sure to take the appropriate measures to insure a smart TV is not easily hacked.

“The concern that the device in your living room always on watching you could possibly be used to harvest information to create a profile for you and your family,” said Wakefield. “It’s a perfect example of bringing tech into my house for one reason and there’s this whole other back channel of data collecting. There’s obviously the concern if they could be hacked and used against you and that’s certainly a concern. I’m worried about a Chinese hacker, sure, but there are things happening legally that we’ve consented to. I don’t have that stuff in my house for this reason.”

Wakefield noted that in western Europe regulations have gone into place in an attempt to keep these types of companies honest.

General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) was implemented in the European Union in 2018, which requires a processor of personal data to clearly disclose any data collection, declare the lawful basis and purpose for data processing, and state how long data is being retained and if it is being shared with any third parties.

“I don’t think there is an equivalency in the states yet. It’s game-changing. It requires companies to show how they use data, requirements for accuracy and who they can share it with. They’re leading the way right now and hopefully we can follow suit with that,” said Wakefield.

Nathan can be reached at


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