As the technological realm becomes more pervasive, whom can we trust? Each week, Liberty Nation brings new insight into the fraudulent use of personal data, breaches of privacy, and attempts to filter our perception.
This week we look at Amazon employees listening to your Alexa recordings, and ask whether Google is a biased machine trying to manipulate your worldview.
Google and Government Messaging
The internet was originally developed by numerous contributors, but chief among them was the U.S. Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA – currently DARPA). While the internet is generally considered a privately-run entity nowadays, what links remain between Silicon Valley corporations and the government?
LN’s Jeff Charles recently looked at the links between Facebook and the state, while Amazon and Microsoft are pursuing government contracts that will make them instrumental in law enforcement and the military. Now, it appears Google is working to restrict the exposure certain foreign media outlets have online. Is this tech giant working with the U.S. government trying in a propaganda war to shut down the voices of its declared enemies, or are these countries publishing content that Google itself doesn’t like?
Iranian state media has accused the tech giant of shutting down its English-language (PressTV) and Spanish-language (HispanTV) Youtube channels, as well as its Google account. According to PressTV, the banning occurred without prior notice, and the outlet is unable to restore its account, “because it was used in a way that violates Google’s policies,” Youtube vaguely informs them. Previous videos are still available for viewing – which seems inconsistent with the assumption that they violated the site’s rules – but no new content can be added. PressTV claims this is not the first time it has butted heads with Youtube, and that it is also barred from Google’s news service. The outlet attributes the move to U.S. government intervention:
“The Google ban seems to be in line with the US government’s stepped-up pressure on Iran and an all-out propaganda campaign against the country, which includes targeting Iranian media.”
Iran is not the only foreign government to feel Google’s cold shoulder. Since the Trump-Russia collusion narrative took flight, much has been made of the influence of Russian state “propaganda arm” RT News. In 2017, Eric Schmidt, executive chairman at Google’s parent company, Alphabet, remarked that outlets designated to be disseminating foreign propaganda would be not be banned, but simply coded out of prominence. When asked about Russian sites’ prominence in Google news alerts and advertising, he said, “We’re working on detecting this kind of scenario you’re describing, and again, de-ranking those kinds of sites. It’s basically RT and Sputnik are the two, and there’s a whole bunch of coverage about what we’re doing there. But we’re well aware of it; we’re trying to engineer the systems to prevent it. We don’t want to ban the sites; that’s not how we operate.”
Professor Dan Kovalik, from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, told RT, “It is a form of censorship, and the idea is to lead readers away from RT content. And it will have an impact on the discourse in this country [U.S.]. When [you start] censoring anyone, they are going to censor everyone, and I think everyone in the US should be appalled by this and very concerned.”
Alexa Records, Amazon Listens
If you own an Amazon Echo home assistant device, you may have wondered exactly what happens to the information gathered from your home. These devices keep recordings of every interaction you have with them – but Amazon has always insisted that these recordings are kept private … until now.
The company has revealed what some have long suspected – that these recordings are kept and used by the company to further “train” the Alexa artificial intelligence, using data gathered by existing customers. This is not entirely surprising – the method of AI developers is to collect as much information as possible, to give their programs the largest possible “education.” But according to a recent report by Bloomberg, thousands of Amazon contractors and employees are able to listen to these recordings and even share them in a staff chatroom.
While the company says it does not keep audio recordings, the company hires reviewers who undertake the tedious work of transcribing and annotating Alexa’s interactions and feeding them back to the program, which uses them to get “smarter.” “The teams use internal chat rooms to share files when they need help parsing a muddled word—or come across an amusing recording,” according to Bloomberg.
Transcribers say they have come across recordings that Alexa users would undoubtedly prefer to remain private, while others have revealed upsetting or perhaps even criminal incidents. “When something like that happens, they may share the experience in the internal chat room as a way of relieving stress,” says the report. Not only is this corporation collecting millions of private conversations, but can it be good for an employee’s mental health to spend nine hours a day listening to and typing these scripts?
A spokeswoman for Amazon attempted to allay fears, saying:
“We take the security and privacy of our customers’ personal information seriously. We only annotate an extremely small sample of Alexa voice recordings in order [to] improve the customer experience … We have strict technical and operational safeguards, and have a zero tolerance policy for the abuse of our system. Employees do not have direct access to information that can identify the person or account as part of this workflow. All information is treated with high confidentiality and we use multi-factor authentication to restrict access, service encryption and audits of our control environment to protect it.”
According to Bloomberg, while the transcribers are not given access to the full names and addresses of users, they are able to see the first name, account number, and device serial number associated with each recording.
Is Google Manipulating Your Search Results?
Google started off as a search engine, and that is still the public face of the company. But rather than simply turning up objective result to match your keywords, could Google be steering you to reach a desired viewpoint? One Youtuber decided to compare the results of several online search engines to see whether Google is more biased than its competitors (hint: it is). You can view the “experiment” between roughly the 4:00-15: 00-minute marks.
Do you believe the U.S. media is telling the whole truth? Are foreign outlets any better? RT and PressTV may indeed operate as propaganda outlets for their respective governments, but is our own press any less biased? As always, the solution must be to educate ourselves. Knowledge is power, and the greater variety of sources we use to gather our information about the world, the more balanced out self-education must be. Don’t let Google dictate what information you are allowed to see; this author now has a renewed interest in seeing if RT or PressTV have anything interesting to say.
While Google is still the most used search engine in the world, why not give one of its competitors a try? LN’s Onar Åm has looked at DuckDuckGo, a search engine whose “sales pitch is that they neither store any personal information about their users nor engage in politically discriminatory behavior.”
Regarding Alexa, Bloomberg notes that “Echo owners frequently speculate about who might be listening, according to two of the reviewers. ‘Do you work for the NSA?’ they ask. ‘Alexa, is someone else listening to us?’” If you have to ask, why bring the device into your home, in the first place?