Technology getting “smarter” and eventually becoming a liability is a Hollywood trope that borders on cliché. But what was once science fiction now seems more possible than ever. The danger doesn’t necessarily lie with artificial intelligence that becomes self-aware and turns on us (as in the Terminator franchise).
Instead, the problem likely lies with how the technology that we take for granted allows others to spy on us. In many cases, that includes law enforcement agencies. Consider a recent case in the news.
Police are currently investigating the death of an Arkansas man who was found floating in a friend’s hot tub. He is believed to have been strangled, and the owner of the house (the victim’s friend) has been charged with murder.
The suspect owns an Amazon Echo, the device that can run many aspects of your home through voice commands. These devices are always listening for voice commands, and authorities now want Amazon to turn over any recorded conversation snippets, voice commands or data that could be pertinent to the investigation.
Amazon claims that the Echo is only listening for the wake word “Alexa,” and does not collect any information or record any sounds until after it hears that word. When a command is spoken, it gets sent to Amazon’s servers.
It is very possible that Amazon has no information pertinent to the investigation. And even if it does, the company may not be obligated to turn it over without a warrant. But this case at least suggests (without sounding too paranoid) that the technology we interact with everyday – in our homes and bedrooms – could become surveillance equipment to be used against us. Technology often progresses faster than the laws that limit its use. In the hands of law enforcement, the lack of clear boundaries could threaten our privacy and our civil rights.