Sidewalks of Dzerzhinsky Square
I had something else in mind for this week, but I encountered something different that has to take precedence, so that I can be sure that the Gentle Readers will see it. I may return to the other topic later.
The something different refers to “ALEXA” and the devices that she controls, and a program by Amazon called “Sidewalk.” “ALEXA” is the female computer voice that you hear on commercials on TV when someone walks into the room and says “ALEXA, turn on the lights” and it does so telling you that it did. Or another commercial where you tell it to lock up the house at night and it does, telling you that it did so. Two thoughts here. First, in order to give you the convenience of doing things like that, it has to automatically listen to and store everything said in the house for a while so as to pick up commands given to it in the course of normal conversation. Think about that one for a minute or two. The second thing I heard from someone who is far more skilled with computers than I am. It has always been possible, in theory, to manually turn off the Amazon systems commanded by ALEXA. My expert friend, who I have every reason to believe, said that someone turned the systems, and computer, off manually. And then later out of reflex accidentally called out to ALEXA to do something for him. And the computer answered in ALEXA's voice; “ALEXA has been manually turned off.”
Prithee, tell me how ALEXA knew to say that it was turned off, if it had been turned off.
I ran across mention of this a week or so ago, when I heard that Amazon Corporation messaged its users and gave them only six days to opt out of a their new program called Sidewalk. Usually you are offered a choice to opt in. And you may well ask, what the freep is “Sidewalk?”
As Amazon explained it, it is a method of using the Amazon devices in your house, which you already bought, and for which you are paying in one form or another for their Internet access, to become wireless routers run by Amazon. And controlled by Amazon. And the data passing through is not yours anymore, but . . . Amazon's.
And why are they doing this? For the most altruistic reasons, according to them. After all, there are those poor souls who cannot afford or do not have access to unlimited high-speed wi-fi. So they say that they are doing this, taking just a fraction of your internet access, that you have paid for in one form or another, and using the network of routers created by you by having say an Amazon Ring camera/internet/doorbell and giving some of your internet access to your next door neighbor, or someone across town, or across the country. Surely that is an act of corporate charity that you could not oppose, even it you are paying for it.
Now in the original messages, and in later discussions of it in mainstream computer magazines and sites where they are literally warning people to opt out immediately; Amazon has claimed that they will only take up to either a certain absolute amount, or a certain percentage of your bandwidth (which you are paying for) from each device. The percentage of your bandwidth, or the amount of the bandwidth, differs in Amazon's statements and the articles about it. I will include links below to some of those online articles warning about Sidewalk.
And especially this one:
You look at these sources, and you cannot say these are off the wall conjectures. The Washington Post, MSN and PC Magazine epitomize mainstream. I rather suspect that they are understating things.
Now, people get their Internet access and wi-fi capability from many places. Some have a company come in and install a hard-wired router and/or wi-fi hub. For some relative few, that company is the traditional phone company. For some, it is an Internet access company. And for a lot of people, they get their Internet access through their smart phones. Depending on the plan you have with each, you pay for it based on different things.
Some plans have unlimited amounts of data and videos that can be used. Most plans have limits. If you go over those limits, you either lose access for a while or they can and do charge you a significant fraction of a butt-load for anything over the limit.
Consider, if you will, what happens if you are going about your own business, and you push up against whatever limits there are on your own plan. And then Amazon takes part of your Internet bandwidth and gives it to your neighbor . . . for free. But that is OK, because you are paying for it. Right? And you own, for some limited values of the concept of own, something made by and sold by Amazon. Which voids your other property rights.
In theory, as of this moment in time, not everything made by Amazon is on the Sidewalk. And indeed, not everything that uses ALEXA is on the list now. As Of This Moment In Time. Here is what they say will be part of Sidewalk, if you do not opt out:
Ring Floodlight Cam (2019)
Ring Spotlight Cam Wired (2019)
Ring Spotlight Cam Mount (2019), Echo (3rd gen and newer)
Echo Dot (3rd gen and newer)
Echo Dot for Kids (3rd gen and newer)
Echo Dot with Clock (3rd gen and newer)
Echo Plus (all generations)
Echo Show (all models and generations)
Basically, the Ring systems are forms of security for your yard and involve cameras that record what they see. It is how a lot of thieves of packages off of porches get caught. Amazon Echo is a wide variety of speakers and screens that use ALEXA to run houses, entertainment systems, etc. It does not as of yet, include any of the Amazon Kindle, Paperwhite or Fire tablets. As of yet.
Your Humble Servant only has an OLD Kindle. It can contact Amazon to order books, and that is it. My wife and one of my daughters have Kindle Fires. Kindle Fires have full Internet, email and texting capability. If you look at the articles I linked above, you will see that the key to opting out of Sidewalk is supposedly turning off ALEXA. Keep in mind that Big Tech companies lie to us routinely. But assuming that in this case they are not lying, my daughter went through all the steps prescribed for telling ALEXA to bugger off.
For both her and her mother's Kindle Fires, the first time ALEXA was invited to leave, all the content on the Fire vanished. It wasn't gone, gone. It was still in the Cloud and she could and did download it back. And the second time she evicted ALEXA, in theory ALEXA stayed off and the content remained. My abacus version of the Kindle has no ALEXA. But I am watching it. And keeping in mind where my splitting maul is in case Sidewalk turns up on it.
Now ALL this hostility towards Amazon is not simply because they are functionally stealing money from us. Although they are. What is key is what we know about Amazon. They are claiming everything they get through their devices (which we paid for) is theirs. To do with as they will. As in giving to any government agency or private organization, at will, with no notice. That “everything” that they get includes everything you do online. And they can give it away to the agents of the State, with no need of any warrants or judicial process. Even more worrying is their statement that they cannot comment at this time on any future plans with the data.
Think about the Ring. Cameras everywhere, giving the regime a camera network covering a huge area of the country 24/7. Paid for by those being watched.
Think about Echo, recording everything in your home and giving it to whoever Amazon favors, or is paid off by. Think about whatever new things that they come up with and what they may do.
Now think about the political inclinations we know about and the political culture of Amazon. They have a habit of censoring anything too conservative for their tastes. And think about the government they would be cooperating with.
I have been accused of being cynical and non-trusting. I won't argue with that. I don't trust Amazon. I don't trust our government. And I definitely do not trust the idea of them acting in concert. And y'all can do whatever you want, but I'm pretty sure that I will not be buying any more Amazon devices. And I will be driving a wooden stake through ALEXA's cyber-heart. I would also recommend extreme discretion in what you say, in jest or otherwise, in your home if you have anything with ALEXA.