Amazon recently came out with a nifty new home automation device called the Echo. The gadget is an innocuous looking speaker meant to sit in your home and listen for you to bark commands—things like “give me a recipe for borsht,” or “play back in the USSR”— at its integrated personal assistant, Alexa.
It’s always listening so that Alexa can cater to your every need. And in a perfect world, it would be the stuff of Jetsonian dreams—but in the modern big-government surveillance state, it’s simply a reminder of all the ways we’re willingly handing ourselves over to a dystopian future.
Back in March, Gizmodo editor Matt Novak filed a Freedom of Information request with the FBI to see if the agency had yet wiretapped an Echo to listen in on the private conversations of its owner.
He explained the reasoning behind his inquiry thusly:
In 2016, creepy perverts are hacking computer cameras and baby monitors all the time just to get their sick little rocks off. And we know that the NSA can still wiretap your phone even when it’s not turned on. So why wouldn’t law enforcement agencies or intelligence agencies hack your Echo (presumably with a court order) to catch the baddies?
The agency’s answer wasn’t very detailed— but, if you value your privacy, it says plenty. Here’s how the FBI responded:
Please be advised that, upon reviewing the substantive nature of your request, we can neither confirm nor deny the existence of records responsive to your request pursuant to FOIA exemption … The mere acknowledgement of whether the FBI has any such records in and of itself would disclose techniques, procedures, and/or guidelines that could reasonably be expected to risk circumvention of the law. Thus, the FBI neither confirms nor denies the existence of any records.
Translation, they have or they are working on figuring out how to wiretap Echo and similar devices but they don’t want to get all those pesky privacy advocates asking questions about things like court orders and legality.
While the FBI’s answer to the Echo question is frustrating, it should be in no way surprising to anyone who’s been paying attention to the government’s privacy-violating antics in this technological age.
Way back in 2014, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed that the government has the ability to listen in through devices that most of us carry constantly without a second thought. The government spy agency can even remotely access a smartphone’s camera and microphone when the device is switched off.