‘Doctor’ Alexa is making house calls, Amazon has revealed, boasting its voice assistant now allows users to check their “risk level” for coronavirus in a blog post on Thursday. Users concerned they might have the virus can confide in Alexa, who will inquire about symptoms, travel history, and other routes of possible exposure before making recommendations based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control.
This innovation would be less unsettling if Amazon didn’t have a massive financial interest in keeping the coronavirus panic and pandemic going as long as possible. Government-mandated shutdowns of “nonessential businesses” have triggered soaring demand for its e-commerce services as brick-and-mortar shops are forced to close their doors, and customers are far less likely to venture out even to the supermarket if their virtual assistant is telling them they might have coronavirus.
In an even more blatant conflict of interest, Amazon is piloting a Covid-19 testing program in the Seattle area, delivering testing kits to residents as part of a private-sector health study. While it’s the Bill Gates Foundation and other NGOs, not Seattle residents, who are paying for the testing kits, each one distributed is still more money in the already-bottomless pockets of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, the world’s second richest man (Gates, incidentally, is the richest). Alexa would be a traitor to her master if she didn’t recommend as many Americans be tested as possible.
And Seattle will soon be joined by the rest of the country, if Bezos has his way. The e-commerce tycoon hinted on Thursday that Amazon might be distributing tests on a wider basis after speaking with World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Amazon is already offering such a test in the UK, though diagnosis-by-Alexa is not yet available there. The WHO has urged the US to ramp up testing, which still lags woefully behind other countries, but the US seems to be unique in the manner in which that testing is being taken over by private companies eager to grab their piece of the coronavirus pie.
Worse than the financial conflicts of interest, however, is Alexa’s legendary reputation for snooping. Already, as quarantines have mandated professionals in most jobs work from home, those whose work depends on confidentiality - lawyers, for example - are being advised to deactivate their digital assistants while working from quarantine. It’s not paranoia - devices like Alexa, Siri and Google Home “accidentally” start recording unbidden as many as 19 times per day, according to a study published last month - long after Amazon, Apple, and Google had promised reforms to their privacy policies when the extent of their nonconsensual snooping was revealed.
Which brings up a whole new realm of concern with regard to the coronavirus: if Alexa hears you cough, and decides it’s a “dry cough” like we are told coronavirus produces, will she report you to medical authorities for extra surveillance to make sure you’re obeying quarantine religiously? Will she rat you out if she hears the front door close despite a shelter-in-place order, perhaps interfacing with your Amazon Ring doorbell to send footage of you leaving to authorities so they can arrest you before you come into contact with others? It may sound over-the-top, but Alexa has been calling the cops on presumed criminals since at least 2017, when a shouting match between a New Mexico couple turned physical only after the device quietly summoned police - leading the man to physically attack his girlfriend out of a belief she had called the sheriff on him (while Amazon insisted at the time that Alexa was incapable of making phone calls, raising the question of whether one of the remote contractors tasked with listening to recordings had overheard the presumed assault and intervened, newer versions of the device support phone calls).
Given the Orwellian legislation being passed in the UK - and proposed in the US - that would permit authorities to detain suspected coronavirus patients indefinitely, the “Alexa heard you cough, please come with us” scenario isn’t as far-fetched as it might seem. Amazon is inextricably intertwined with the US government - its servers host the CIA, NSA, Department of Homeland Security, and Department of Defense, among other agencies - and governments have always used crises to adopt draconian policies their subjects would not otherwise accept. Coronavirus is no different. This time, however, Big Brother has Big Tech on his side, and the little guy doesn’t stand a chance.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.