E-letter: Loose lips


My first in-town job was at a service station, where I did tire repair, oil changes and lubes, and was the gas jockey. The mechanic, Bernie, was an aging WWII veteran that kept to himself and shut himself in his camper from noon to 1:00. He refused to talk about anything but sports, weather and the news. He particularly did not speak about customers, his life or the past. I used to walk over to him if things were slow, and he would wave me away and caution me not to get too close. “If you do,” he would say, “they can get us both with one grenade.” 

Kerry Knudsen

There were no grenades, nor had there been in a generation. However, his attitude was not as over-the-top as it may seem from today’s perspective. It grew out of the “loose lips sink ships” culture of the war, when virtually everybody had known somebody that got killed, and most of the deaths were the result of enemy action and intelligence. During the war, nobody spoke openly about where they were going, what they were doing or who they were seeing, and most people were directly or indirectly involved in the war effort. 

In the early ‘50s, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted of transferring secret information to the Soviets, and were both executed on June 19, 1953, joining a list of about 25 people executed for spying in Europe and the States (mostly in the USSR and Nazi Germany) since WWI. People back then took private information very seriously. 

My, how thing change. Today, we have thrown privacy to the winds. Take Alexa and Siri, for example. Alexa and Siri are “virtual assistants.” “Virtual assistant” is a made-up construct, so its definition is anything that the inventor wants it to mean. What it means, however, is that there is a device in your house or office that is attached to spying software. It is listening for the proper code word to activate a programmed response. 

Like HAL in 2001 A Space Odyssey, Alexa and Siri (let’s call them AAS) claim that they are helpful and benign, but we need to think. If they are listening for a code, they are listening. Period. Alexa watchers recently got caught listening in on people’s sexual activities in the privacy of their own homes. In fact, both AASes have been found out in court listening in on things they said they were not. 

So we know they are listening. All The Time. Now, we should be comfortable that they are not listening for other code words than Alexa or Siri. We would not want them to be listening for such code words as new house, new car or divorce. I mean, if somebody knew you were in the market for a new car, you might find new car ads bombing your computer every 13 minutes for two years after you already bought the thing. AASes are nothing, if not unbrilliant. 

Then again, they may actually be listening for “divorce.” According to the current, unverified edition of Wikipedia:  

A New Hampshire judge ruled in November 2018 that authorities could examine recordings from an Amazon Echo (Alexa) device recovered from the home of murder victim Christine Sullivan for use as evidence against defendant Timothy Verrill. Investigators believe that the device, which belonged to the victim’s boyfriend, could have captured audio of the murder and its aftermath.  

During the Chris Watts interrogation/interview video at timestamp 16:15:15, Watts was told by the interrogator, “We know that there’s an Alexa in your house, and you know those are trained to record distress,” indicating Alexa may send recordings to Amazon if certain frequencies and decibels (that can only be heard during intense arguments or screams) are detected. 

OK. So AASes are allowed to listen-in if decibel and frequency thresholds are met. They say. It is disturbing, however, to learn that there are other codes than the ones we were told. I’m not saying that divorce and murder are the same. On the other hand, it is within reason to expect that a dog eating a favoured heirloom or beef stew dropped on a new carpet might also generate “frequencies and decibels,” as might a teenager being told she was grounded. (If that ever happens anymore.) 

As a former linguist, I can tell you they are talking about supra-segmental phonemic structures, and I can pretty well guarantee that world does not start and stop with murder. See “people’s sexual activities in the privacy of their own homes,” above. 

This morning I heard a report of yet another fatal car/transport accident, complete with the latest request from law enforcement that “people with dash cam footage are asked to contact….” I was curious. I have never had a dash cam. I have backup, front and side cams, but no dash cam. So I looked at Amazon. It appears there are 20 pages of dash cams, and you can get any one of 30 or so in the first few pages for around $50. As a side note, I understand law enforcement is not so fond of radar detectors in Canada, so this privacy idea flows downstream, but not up. 

Dash cams are becoming all the rage for the news media. And why not? The footage costs nothing, and, like cell-phone footage, amateur pranks and unprofessional accidents can be waved away with one hand. Just some kids havin’ fun, eh? There are security cams and dash cams and cell cams and backup cams, so no harm, no foul. 

Except I forgot about surveillance cams. Surveillance cams are there to catch people doing something wrong. Of course, they shouldn’t do something wrong, should they? I mean, if they are trying to break into your house, they should get caught, shouldn’t they? Maybe we should ask AASes and see what the algorithm for “break in” is. Could be the burglar is already home. 

One more step. I saw the other day that cameras are being placed on beaches to scan for “unacceptable behaviour.” There’s another one of those back-formed crimes. Whoever invented unacceptable behaviour gets to define it, but one gets the impression that littering is not what they’re talking about. What they are talking about is any behaviour that “offends” some ideal of some possibly existing or not existing “at-risk” visible minority.  

So that’s fine, except it has become a bit dicey to define what constitutes offence until after one is accused of it. The current torrent of charges of racism, fascism, sexism and whatever-phobiaism being leveled will-he/nil-he across the spectrum leaves some doubt as to the concrete-ness of some of the isms. 

So we are not private at the beach or in a mall. We are not private on the road or in a plane (Cathay Pacific). And we are not private near our cell phones or in our beds. 

Julian Assange appears about to go on trial for exposing state secrets. Google is under fire across Europe for privacy violations and has already been fined billions. The U.S. Congress is taking up their concerns with Google, Amazon and Twitter. Et cetera. 

What has this to do with us? Many things, actually. We may not want a disgruntled employee taking video of our processes and contacts and providing them to our competitors. We may not want a deep-fake video pretending to show people committing acts they never contemplated. We may not want some half-wit kid hacking our credit and bank accounts. We may not want somebody else deciding what kind of cutlery, car or cabinetry ads to see. We may not want somebody else listening in on our home time with our spouses. 

The costs of our lenience with our privacy rights is only now coming home to roost. I used to think he was a goof, but old Bernie had it right. Loose lips may no longer sink ships, but they can certainly sink businesses. And I am no more in favour of executions than before. However, I nice public flogging seems to be in order. Canadians are getting really, really, really mad.