Is your virtual guest selling secrets?
By Jim Ray
“You will readily imagine,” wrote George Robert Gleig, “that these preparations were beheld by a party of hungry soldiers with no indifferent eye.” The occasion was the arrival of British troops to the White House on August 24, 1814. They had come to seize James Madison, but the president had already fled the premises. What the soldiers found instead was an elegant, but abandoned, meal prepared for a party of forty. Not willing to let the food to go to waste, the soldiers sat down and helped themselves to a lavish dinner and copious pourings of wine. Then, they topped off their celebrations by burning down the White House.
The War of 1812 and the torching of the Executive Mansion was a low point for the United States, and one of particular aggravation because Americans don’t care for uninvited guests. The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution preserves “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, and against unreasonable searches and seizures.” These days, though, the guests are not coming in red coats, but in the form of little electronic devices that may be listening to every word you say.[MORE]
The names are quickly becoming household words: Alexa, Siri, Echo and Google Home to name a few. They are devices and programs touted as “virtual assistants,” but they could conceivably be employed as virtual spies. If you aren’t yet familiar with this cutting-edge technology, here’s an illustration of what a virtual assistant can do:
Suppose you awake this morning and would like to know the temperature outside. In the good old days, you would have labored the ten or twelve steps to your back porch to look through the window at your dial thermometer there—you remember, the big white analog disk with a red arrow pointing to the temperature. The advent of the smartphone made that trip unnecessary. With an android or Apple phone, you can simply pick up your phone from the nightstand, hit the weather app and be instantly informed.
The idea behind the “virtual assistant” is that even the task of pushing a button on a smartphone is asking too much of you. You may now, for example, say “Hey Siri,” and your Apple phone will perk up and respond with, “How can I help you?” The capabilities, of course, go far beyond a weather report. You can use a virtual assistant to control electronics, turn lights on or off, and launch a myriad of other tasks.
But, quite obviously, if your device is listening for you to say “Hey Siri” (or whatever the “wake-up” command is for your particular tool), it follows that it must, on some level, be listening to everything, all the time. It is listening when you had that argument with your spouse. It is listening when you called that politician a dunce. It is listening when you complained about the neighbor’s dog. It is listening when you discussed your private medical history. All of it has the potential to go to a databank somewhere in the world where it will be retained forever and perhaps used against you.
Naturally, the providers selling these devices say that your privacy is paramount. They promise your data will not be exploited. If you trust the government and trust all the big corporations behind these devices, perhaps there is nothing to worry about.
But long ago, the American Revolution was fought in no small part because citizens objected violently to the notion that British troops could storm into an abode and make themselves at home, literally. And the War of 1812 was an unpleasant reminder of the damage that can be done by uninvited guests.
One wonders, then, if Americans have become just a bit too cavalier with the precious right to be secure in their own homes. “Liberty, once lost,” warned President John Adams, “is lost forever.”
- Pray that your right to “be secure” in your own home will be preserved—ultimately this issue could impact your religious liberty.
- Remember that the most important “witness” to your life is the Lord. “Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed or hidden that will not be known” by Him (Luke 12:2.)
Jim Ray is a writer, fundraiser and consultant. He and his wife Stacey have two children and reside in Nashville, TN.