Tech Tuesday: Newton’s Third Law and the Blurring Lines of Privacy


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CCTV security cameraThe best way to crack down on crime, you would believe, would be to have more law enforcement patrolling the beat. More eyes in your local area, right? But what if the resources are not there to hire and train more police officers? Time to start considering a different sort of watch. The kind of watch where the eyes are always present, always vigilant, and never in need of a break…but maybe the occasional maintenance from time to time. This may be why in London, the city invested into close-circuit television (CCTV) cameras, one for every 14 people in the city. That number adds up to well over 400,000 cameras.

So think about that for a moment: Nearly half a million cameras in one major metropolitan city. Do you feel safe, or compromised?

Newton’s Third Law. Do you know it? For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Usually, this law applies to physics, but when you think about it deeper, it applies to civics, as well. For the convenience of safety, you sacrifice a level of privacy. Somewhat ominous the more you consider it. This loss of privacy can be rationalized away if you think “I can always remain confident this will never be an issue in my own home. I am the master of that domain.”

Then Amazon, Google, and Apple offered voice-activated conveniences. Always on call. Always listening.

How private does your privacy feel now?

When police in Bentonville, Arkansas were faced in 2016 with an unsolved murder, they looked to a nearby Amazon Echo to crack the case. The owner of the house where the murder occurred—the chief suspect in the case—had purchased Amazon’s popular new personal assistant, and law enforcement believed the suspected killer had cornered the victim in his kitchen, within earshot of Alexa. So they actually confiscated the Amazon Echo to take a look at it. There was a good amount of opposition to this, especially from Amazon who wanted to avoid setting a precedent to future cases where lawmakers could access an Echo in this fashion.

The good news for Echo owners is that very little data stores on the device itself. The hardware includes only 4GB of storage, and that is mostly taken up by device firmware.

The ephemeral data—the data that would be what you speak and when it was spoken—is quickly wiped out when you restart the device. You would think that would be a deterrent enough, but the Echo has no data ports. You can only access that little bit of ephemeral data by physically removing the components or connecting directly to a pinout output on the circuit board.

In other words, that data is really hard to access.

On the Echo.

Smartphone with headphonesThe data on the suspect’s phone is a different matter entirely. If you have an Amazon Echo and you have the Echo App on your phone, any requests you make will be stored, timestamped, on your phone. As part of their investigation, law enforcement could actually get hold of the iPhone and look for any data stored there; but the catch is they are only going to access the data when they used the keyword “Alexa” to activate and unlock it.

In the end, they are probably not going to get anything that related to the crime itself, unless the person’s name was Alexa, was recorded on the phone using the “Alexa, listen to this…” prompt, and if the suspect-named-Alexa opted out to have audio cached on your phone.

It is possible—under very exacting circumstances—something could be there, but very, very unlikely. Still, you have to wonder, we have these various devices always on, always listening. At what point have we given up so much of our privacy that we don’t have any control at all? Are we giving up too much by having these convenience devices?

Something worth pondering.



shurtz.jpgA research physicist who has become an entrepreneur and educational leader, and an expert on competency-based education, critical thinking in the classroom, curriculum development, and education management, Dr. Richard Shurtz is the president and chief executive officer of Stratford University. He has published over 30 technical publications, holds 15 patents, and is host of the weekly radio show, Tech Talk. A noted expert on competency-based education, Dr. Shurtz has conducted numerous workshops and seminars for educators in Jamaica, Egypt, India, and China, and has established academic partnerships in China, India, Sri Lanka, Kurdistan, Malaysia, and Canada.