As of January 2019, over 100 million Alexa-enabled devices had been sold. That’s 100 million users relying on Alexa to tweak their thermostats, stream their music and schedule their appointments. Whilst there are many who view these devices simply as helping hands - there are others who consider them to be Trojan horses in the age of digital surveillance. This project centres around those who view Alexa as both of these things; those who use Alexa, but do so with a looming paranoia about where their data might end up, and the purpose for which it might be used.
The outcome of the project, CounterBug, is a family of satirical accessories intended to confuse the algorithms of Amazon’s Alexa. CounterBug uses disinformation as a form of guerrilla data security, bombarding Alexa with false data - in turn protecting the user from the threats of state spying, vested corporate interest and potential criminal hackers.
Each accessory responds to a different form of surveillance paranoia; one to censor the user’s language so that they don’t get in trouble with the NSA, one to disrupt Amazon’s tailored advertising algorithms, and one that chats to Alexa about virtuous topics whilst they’re out the house.
As the user of an Amazon Echo speaker begins to rely on Alexa to mediate a variety of tasks around the home - their use of the device becomes habitual. Each time they add a new device into their smart-home ecosystem, Amazon learns in more detail about their lifestyle and behaviours. This detail constitutes invaluable information capital, which Amazon can leverage to predict and control the lifestyles and behaviours of their customers.
For the person living in a smart-home filled with Echo devices, Amazon becomes more than just a retailer - it becomes an operating system used to mediate their physical life.
The Snowden Disclosures in 2014 shined light on the surveillance practices of the US government. Classified documents were published containing detailed reports of the NSA (National Security Agency‘s) wide-scale electronic data mining program, PRISM.
Snowden’s documents revealed that the NSA has partnerships with nine major technology corporations: Microsoft, Google, Yahoo!, AOL and Skype to name a few. These partnerships enable the NSA to monitor real time data content such internet search behavior and browsing patterns. Further, the ‘Verizon Scandal’ revealed that a secret court order had required major telephone networks to provide the NSA with a sustained stream of metadata regarding phone calls: locations, caller, callee and call duration.
It only takes a Google search to find countless cases in which hackers have been able to to remotely access the microphones of virtual assistants.
One group of Chinese hackers spent months developing a new technique for hijacking Amazon’s Echo smart speaker:
“After several months of research, we successfully broke the Amazon Echo by using multiple vulnerabilities in the Amazon Echo system, achieving remote eavesdropping… When the attack [succeeds], we can control Amazon Echo for eavesdropping and send the voice data through network to the attacker”