Listen up: Alexa isn't spying on you, and this 'spying' skill only proves it


It’s fair to say there’s a certain amount of fear around smart speakers at the moment, as these tiny devices that we put on our coffee tables and bookshelves have the potential to listen in on our every conversation. 

It harks back to the fear at the center of George Orwell’s dystopian classic 1984. Perhaps even further back, to something more primal, to the monster under the bed, the unseen but seeing. 

It’s easy to draw the 1984 parallel because, like the ever-present screens in the sci-fi masterpiece, our smart speakers (and even more similar smart displays) are swiftly working their way into every corner of our lives.

No matter the protestations from the companies that are making these speakers that claim they are only listening for ‘wake’ words, and only send information back to their servers when they’ve been decidedly activated, we still cling to the fear that Amazon (or Google, or Microsoft, or Apple) is spying on us. 

Follow the data

It doesn’t help that there are freaky news stories like Echo devices laughing for no reason, the Echo being hacked, and even news that it’s being manipulated to be a spying device by just using a normally-produced skill. 

But here’s the thing – and try to keep an open mind when reading this – it’s more likely that they’re not spying on you, than they are. The problem is that these companies will never be able to prove to you that they aren’t spying on you, because it is almost impossible prove a negative.

That whole ‘can’t prove a negative’ thing is the exact reason that in most judicial systems around the world, the burden of proof lies always with the claimant. 

I could accuse you, dear reader, of dressing up as a giant tuna fish, and without providing footage of yourself at every moment of your life, you can’t prove that you don’t. That’s an unfair burden.

As the claimant, the burden of proof lies with me to provide pictorial evidence of your fishy endeavors in order to make my accusation stand. And so far, no one has managed to prove that smart speakers are spying on you. 

The recent news that security firm Checkmarx created a skill that allowed it to turn Echo speakers into spy devices (below) actually does more to disprove than prove the theorem.