The use of information obtained by smart devices is already threatening to rewrite the criminal justice system in America. I’ve covered various cases that seriously call into question what place the protections afforded by the U.S. Constitution will have in a future filled with in-home surveillance disguised as consumer entertainment.
However, until this point, the data transmitted or stored in items like Amazon Echo, Fitbit, or Smart Meters have been called upon as after-the-fact investigative tools by police. It appears, now, that police in the UK are establishing a far more open relationship with the users of these devices in what looks like a preemptive capacity.
The Intercept has issued a report about a program in Lancashire, England that was specifically designed by police in a partnership with Amazon Echo developers to broadcast a range of crime updates and information that effectively turns Echo owners into a new set of eyes and ears for law enforcement. Furthermore, Amazon itself will become the custodian of the data, not the police.
Lancashire County will store citizens’ crime reports on Amazon’s servers, rather than those operated by the police. “If we can reduce demand into our call centers via the use of voice recognition or voice-enabled technology, and actually give the community the information they need without them needing to ring into police, then that’s massive,” Rob Flanagan, Lancashire Constabulary innovations manager, told the College of Policing conference, according to TechSpot.
While I can’t pretend to be an expert on UK laws, this would seem to greatly call into question the traditional notion of how the chain of custody is supposed to work, as well as raise concern about the transformation from democracy to technocracy that this added layer of data collection could usher in. Furthermore, as The Intercept notes, the program being initiated in Lancashire is admittedly going to be rolled out in stages – first with broadcasting information, to collecting citizen reports, then on into the internal processes of the police department and how they access information on suspects.
As we see with nearly all forms of this technocratic incrementalism, citizens will need to opt-in initially. However, as we should know by now, smart devices often come embedded with Terms and Conditions that can be murky about what is the default position for giving out one’s information.
For now, Lancashire residents will have to opt in to communicate with law enforcement. But it’s possible that intelligence agencies have already been accessing expansive recordings from millions of voice assistants like Echo, Siri, and Google Home installed domestically and overseas. In 2015, EPIC sent a letter to the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission asking that they investigate the sometimes dubious security of “always on” voice recordings in consumer products like Samsung TV, Hello Barbie, and Microsoft Xbox’s Kinect, among others. Such “smart” devices, which listen to us in our most private spaces, have long proven vulnerable to exploits by spies and hackers alike. The NSA and GCHQ’s speaker-recognition technology, as The Intercept pointed out in January, makes tracking targets through these devices very appealing.
The threat of hacking is of course a paramount concern as there are now endless stories of this possibility. Perhaps even more worrying is that Alexa itself appears to be going off the rails lately as it has been disobeying commands and even issuing creepy laughter that has Amazon acknowledging this frightening new issue.
One user reportedly tried to turn the lights off in their home but Alexa repeatedly turned the lights back on, eventually uttering an ‘evil laugh,’ according to BuzzFeed.
Another Echo Dot owner said they told Alexa to turn off their alarm in the morning and she responded by letting out a ‘witch-like’ laugh.
Alexa is programmed in many voice-activated devices with a preset laugh, which can be prompted by asking: ‘Alexa, how do you laugh?’
But so far, it’s unclear why Alexa is laughing even when users don’t ask her to.
And this is what people should entrust their safety and civil liberties to?
The Lancashire, program, like similar tech surveillance programs in the U.S. and elsewhere, will be tested on a public that has very little say about the legitimacy of implementation, or any of the pertinent details needed to make an informed decision. This latest program of the technocratic police state seems premature, at best; and could open up a veritable Pandora’s Box of potential abuses, at worst.
Do you live in the UK? We would love to hear your thoughts about this program and if you have heard of similar programs being planned in your area.