Monday, August 26, 2019

Strangers Listening

I talk to myself. I don't mean that I mumble every now and then when I stub a toe or something like that. I mean that I have whole conversations with myself. Sometimes I'm talking about something I did ("Why the heck did I buy that plant? I've already killed two of them. That's five dollars I could have spent on some flour or some more tin foil. I am out of tin foil, aren't I? I think I used the last of it the other day. Let me go look. I might have some more in the pantry. Oh, man, I need to straighten this pantry up..."). Sometimes, I am praying out loud or just bargaining with God ("I really am trying to be a nicer person, Lord. Please help me to deal better with my anger." Or, "One of these days, I'm going to run into a wall and do more than give myself a knot on the head. Oh, Lord, please don't let me die from something so stupid. If I have to die, let it be from doing something heroic - or just let me die in my sleep. And please let all my laundry be done and the house clean when it happens. And let me be wearing my good PJs and not have my hair up in twists and a satin scarf.")

You might think I'm just being funny, but I am so serious. I talk to myself so much that I have to tell myself to shut up. Not only do I have those random conversations, but I also talk my way through my writing. I come up with whole pages of dialogue for my characters this way. There are times when the characters are being particularly hilarious and I make myself laugh and laugh and laugh. I'm not sure whether that might be entertaining or just frightening for anyone eavesdropping. And it's the potential eavesdropping that I want to post about today.

I have an Alexa device. I have the Echo Dot. I got it a couple of years ago during a Christmas sale. I don't use it every day. Sometimes, I don't turn it on for weeks at a time. Usually, I use it for listening to music or audiobooks when I'm cleaning or doing other chores around the house. (Even when I use it, I always deactivate the microphone by pushing that one button on top.) I have used it once or twice to call my brother to see if I left my cell phone at his house or in his car. Now that I also have a landline, I don't need the Dot for that. I used to say that if I got very sick and couldn't reach my phone, I'd have Alexa call my family. Of course, then I'd have to put up with all their "I've fallen and I can't get up jokes" for the next ten years... But, like I said, I sometimes don't turn the thing on for weeks. My best friend leaves hers on and uses it for almost everything - finding recipes, checking the weather, help with spelling, setting reminders, and asking random questions. But back to the eavesdropping.

When I read somewhere a while back that Alexa (or Alexa employees) could be listening in even when you hadn't voice-activated it, I got worried. Not worried that it was listening to my solo conversations but that it was listening to me while I had guests or was using the phone. That's just rude. I'm pretty sure that someone somewhere is always watching and listening to us, but I brought Alexa into my home, so it needs to have some manners. I didn't know whether the nosy thing was "training" when I had the microphone deactivated or not. So I searched around and found out how to opt-out of the setting for Alexa "training" itself by listening to me.

For a couple of weeks, I assumed the whole problem of Alexa listening in was handled. Then I was watching one of my favorite YouTube channels where the host brought up why she will never bring an Alexa device into her home and I felt kind of stupid. This host mentions that even her 10-year old son realized early on that Alexa has to always be listening. Otherwise, how does it know when you are speaking the activation word.

Someone, please tell me right now that I'm not the only idiot who never thought of this. Please.

Here's the thing, even without an Alexa device, I don't think that we are free of strangers listening (and looking) in on us. I have a friend who is very computer literate. As soon as they were commonplace, he taught me to always cover the camera lenses on my PC and phone. I always have, though I don't know that it does any good. I'd never done anything about the microphone until recently.

My best friend I and talked about the privacy issue a long time ago. We had started to notice something after we had talked on the phone with someone or even had a conversation in the privacy of our homes. Maybe you've noticed it too? Have you ever had a conversation - not on the computer - and then when you go online, there are advertisements for things you talked about? I can't remember when my friend and I first noticed, but we have had this happen a lot. Usually, we are talking about food (me) or clothes (her) and then the next time we are online, we will see some very specific brand or product that we mentioned. In one of my email accounts, ads run all along one side or the in-box. For instance, I've been on the phone with my friend, talking about a recipe that requires, say, puff pastry and all of a sudden, I will see ads for that very thing. Or we can be discussing some kind of item we want to purchase - like a chair or couch - and, boom, there's an ad for one.

Just in case you think my friend and I are just a little bit nuts (we are, but...), this has happened with other people. I've had a couple of people have this happen. The bestie's sister is aware of it too. My friend and her sister will be in their home talking and see that same kind of thing happen. I was talking with a neighbor - standing at the door at least 10 feet from my phone, computer, and television - talking about one of those meal delivery services. She had gotten some coupons and was offering to share them with me and a couple other neighbors. I declined and thanked her and we chatted for a few minutes before she left. I went back to the computer where I had been blogging and when I checked my mail there was one of those ads. For the next several hours, everywhere online I went, a lot of the advertisements were for different meal delivery services. Now that is just creepy.

Remember that I mentioned the microphone on my phone? Well, I recently went in and checked over all the permissions for the different apps I have installed. I disabled the phone and camera access for all of them that I could. I now only turn those permissions on temporarily as I need them.

I know that people say we are living in the age of the 'smart' home and we have all these so-called 'smart' devices. I just think that the smarter the devices get, the dumber we become.

I'm getting to be so paranoid. I realize that I gave away most of my privacy a long time ago just by joining into social media and blogging and email platforms, but I still want to retain as much control as I can. As far as talking to myself, well, that's never going to change. And it's not something I do because I'm single and turning into a plant-lady-is-the-new-cat-lady. I have always talked to myself and I have driven husbands and roommates crazy doing it. My best friend does the same thing and she says it's because we like talking to intelligent people. Now see, that's why she's my best friend!