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There was a kind of funny story all over the press here last week. Amazon Echoes in California (where else) started ordering doll’s houses for their owners.
In a true case of echoes within echoes, a local TV show in San Diego was reporting how a young girl had told Alexa – the Echo’s operating system – to order cookies and a doll’s house. ‘Many’ viewers complained their Echoes had heard the report and started ordering their own doll’s houses.
Amazon, in that global cloud corner shop way of its, generously said accidentally misordered miniature residences could be returned for free. It also pointed out that a four digit code could be added so that purchases had to be specifically authorised. It didn’t, of course, take the view that maybe a code should be the default setting and you could then switch it off if you wanted.
Anyway, smiles all around and no harm done. So far, no one has tried working surreptitious and inappropriate Echo orders into subversive scripts for targeted shows; ‘Alexa get me a copy of Origin of Species’ on Creationism Today or ‘Alexa I need Bertrand Russell’s Why Men Fight’ to sign off the NRA Update.
Echo is a frontrunner in the Internet of Things, indeed it is a fairly complex example and not surprising, therefore, that it hasn’t worked out all the potential bugs and glitches. And Amazon is a very hi-tech, very successful company. Many companies, including Ford and Huawei have said they will incorporate Alexa technology into their products. At CES, LG did likewise, so the apocryphal thinking, listening, talking refrigerator is among us at long last.
Of course, there is a very significant difference between a chance toy premises purchase, or your fridge fudging up the salad sell by date, and your car misinterpreting a more serious and sudden request like Stop!, for instance. But then again, surely no car manufacturer will be putting in a cheat device to get past the regulators on voice commands or any other self drive gizmos? The consequences would be too obvious and dire.
But what about all the unregulated, or barely regulated stuff? What about every low-margin brown and white good maker around the world whose latest all-singing, all dancing, ‘self-healing’, connected device that you buy for a song on the Internet and promises the earth, but about the only thing it does deliver is a connection – a connection to your home network via the cheapest chip set it could find and with security to match. Your IoT device will almost certainly not be as smart as it says it is, and it probably won’t be as secure either, it may just be a welcome mat to your data. To borrow an ancient phrase for the brave new connected world: Caveat emptor.