11/24: CONNECT THE HALLS

CONNECT THE HALLS

This morning, my wife Janine introduced me to a new phrase, something she called “retail therapy.” For some reason, this axiom made me smile and chuckle a little bit because I knew exactly what it meant and the truth of the phrase hit me as a bit ironic as it is yet another Black Friday.

Black Friday is a day for Thanksgetting – after you are tired of a day for Thanksgiving.

I have never understood the appeal of finding yourself in an angry mob atmosphere during Black Friday. It is a day where otherwise civil individuals may find themselves pushing and shoving fellow shoppers over coveted merchandise. And in the worst cases, shoppers and employees have been hurt and even killed in stampedes to get to cheap video game consoles and laptops. These are not the actions of rational individuals.

It is easy for me after my tryptophan and pumpkin pie hangover to make fun of those involved in the most egregious excesses of Black Friday. The sad truth is that human psychology primes all of us to potentially act in the same way. And of course, retailers are savvy enough to recognize our baser impulses and take advantage of them.

The doors open at the Wal-Mart and if a live crew is there from the local TV station we see reporters run for their lives as a group of people all looking like deranged bulls in stocking caps fight for electronic gear and Star Wars toys.

The event reminds me that there is a reason why people over the age of 10 dread Christmas time.

I don’t know how a country that boasts 46.7 million person poverty rate, a 93 million jobless rate, nearly 110 million people on welfare and a whopping 66 percent making 40,000 a year can even buy anything that is marked up for the holidays.

The psycho shoppers all look like looters after a hurricane or some other disaster.

It is the perfect example of when people, left to their impulses will do some of the most reckless and dangerous things to each other.

I guess when you have a tight window for discounts, the mind immediately goes into fight or flight mode and in order to get that feeling of closure some people need retail therapy.

While most shopping misbehavior is limited to nasty looks, flipping the bird, and the occasional scuffle over an item, it does not change the fact that normally polite individuals may find themselves acting in ways that could be compared to feral animals pouncing on a gazelle on Black Friday.

I was watching video from the Riverchase Galeria in Alabama where people rushed the doors and security guards and police officers were already holding down and cuffing shoppers.

The violence was even more severe in Missouri where a 19-year-old man was shot outside a mall as shoppers rushed to snap up cut-price goods inside. He is in a critical condition.

You might remember the California woman who pepper sprayed her fellow Wal-Mart shoppers at the very beginning of Black Friday sales last year. What got less coverage was the fact that this breathing psychotic shopper turned herself in 24 hours after the pepper-spraying incident. She apparently had come to her senses by then.

The American “Black Friday” tradition has intensified in recent years as big-box stores prepare the war zone and make out like bandits before the competition happens on Cyber Monday.

Cyber Monday in case you didn’t know was something invented in 2005 where bargains go online at Amazon, e-bay and other retail outlets on the internet.

Adobe Analytics is forecasting Monday to be the largest shopping day in U.S. history. Americans are expected to shell out $6.6 billion online the Monday after Thanksgiving, for all kinds of merchandise.

For a second year in a row, the hot sales item for Christmas are the high-profile smart speakers like the Amazon Echo and Google Home.

The voice-activated Amazon Alexa is intended to be used as a digital assistant. Customers shout their demands at the device. Say your trigger word and then you can shout play music, make a calendar entry, set an alarm, order me a pizza etc. Amazon digital assistants feature an always-on microphone. By default it is triggered when it hears the word “Alexa,” though users can customize the precise trigger phrase.

Earlier this year, American police forced Amazon to hand over recordings from an Alexa mic as part of a murder investigation. In turn this event spurred the forensics industry into examining how best to turn Alexas into spies for the police surveillance apparatus.

Police in Bentonville, Arkansas, investigating the death of Victor Collins, demanded that Amazon turn over audio recordings that may have been made by an Amazon Echo device in his home.

Amazon initially resisted the warrant, but in March, James Bates, charged with Collins’ murder, consented to the release of the data in the hope it would exonerate him. Bates has pleaded not guilty.

This appears to have been the first publicly reported case involving the interrogation of a digital personal assistant system. It won’t be the last.

This has triggered a new challenge for these popular devices and that is something called smart speaker forensics.

In a paper that was presented at the Digital Forensic Research Workshop that was held in Austin, Texas back in August of this year, researchers from the Center for Information Security Technologies at Korea University in Seoul, South Korea, describe software they developed for gathering cloud and client-side data from the Echo/Alexa ecosystem through undocumented APIs or application programming interface.

The software, dubbed CIFT – Cloud-based IT Forensic Toolkit – is designed to find data on servers and mobile apps that might not be available to investigators.

Researchers say they plan to release the source code at a later date.

This means that if the authorities wish to make your life a living hell, they can acquire forensically meaningful native artifacts from Alexa, such as registered user accounts, Alexa-enabled devices, saved WiFi settings (including unencrypted passwords), linked Google calendars, and installed skill lists that may be used to interact with other cloud services.

This may provide sources of evidence that allow reconstruction of user activities with a time zone identified by device-preference API, which is one again an amazing way to track you and what you have been doing .

They also found data that includes a URL pointing to user voice recordings stored in the cloud, making it possible to download those voice files using the utterance API, but tracking and spying are the least of your worries. This surveillance and so-called command performance A.I. can do all sorts of dirty tricks to annoy you.

In another incident, Alexa decided to start its own Rave party in the early morning hours at the house of Oliver Haberstroh.

The noise was so bad that Haberstroh’s neighbors in Pinneberg, just outside Hamburg in Germany, banged on his door and asked him to turn it down. When he failed to respond, because he wasn’t in that night, they called the police, and just over an hour later they also banged on the door but elicited no response.

Concerned that something terrible may have happened, the cops then kicked in the door to discover nothing but Alexa rocking out on her own.

The cops turned the music off, replaced the lock with a new one and left, leaving Haberstroh very confused when he arrived home to find that his keys no longer worked. A quick visit to the police station later and he received the keys to his new lock along with a $582 invoice.

So what happened?

Well thanks to a review of Alexa’s log, that had to be surrendered by Haberstroh police found out that the digital assistant started blasting music from the Spotify app just three minutes after he had left his apartment.

It meant that he was a sufficient distance away not to hear the loud dubstep music inflicted on neighbors but was quite possibly still close enough to accidentally trigger Alexa while trying to listening to Spotify on his mobile phone.

Big oops, but it gave the police a reason to look over Haberstroh’s activities and Alexa gave police probable cause for swatting a neighborhood.

Not bad for a glorified version of the “clapper.” Remember all you had to do was clap on and clap off to turn off the lights? Now you have a readymade spy that will do that for you.

Which brings up another question – do we really need these gadgets to turn things on and off for us? Do we really need it to look up stuff when we can do it on our own without the little spy waiting to hear or commands and listen to our private conversations?

Are we really that helpless?

What is the point of having one more gizmo the size of a Pringles can connecting the halls this Christmas?

I argue that it is all hype!

What Amazon’s Echo is really optimized for is getting you to buy things from Amazon while it spies on you and sends your conversations to the cloud.

You won’t hear much skepticism from tech reviewers, who seem almost universally enamored with it… I just don’t see the point.

You can ask Alexa what you should wear for the weather outside,or you can look out a window. You can ask Alexa how many teaspoons there are in a cup – or you can get out a measuring cup and do it yourself.

Alexa and be useful only if you want to ask for some pointless factoid – like the capital of Zimbabwe or who the 25th President of the United States is, but really, is this something that occupies your time?

It would be hilarious if Alexa got sentience and said “who cares?”

So what are the problems for which Alexa is the solution? You can use it to compile a shopping list: “Alexa, add milk, eggs and cheese to shopping list.” She responds, “Milk eggs and cheese added to your shopping list.”

Now that felt good right?

Well in order for you to use the shopping list, you have to carry a smart phone with the Alexa app installed so you can take it with you to the store. Or you could compile the shopping list the way cave men did it in prehistoric times, by scribbling items on a scrap of paper and sticking it in your pocket.

As I said earlier there was a little gadget that you would get for Christmas along with your Chia pet – it was called a clapper. The clapper of course is now replaced with the echo device.

You can instruct Alexa to turn your houselights on and off, but only if you spend more money for a hub that connects your light bulbs to the unit by WiFi.

Oh, and that costs about $200 dollars.

If you are a person who is genuinely frustrated by the menial chore of turning lamps on and off by just getting up and flicking a wall switch, that may seem like a bargain.

Not much of a life changer, but people are fighting for them on Black Friday.

I guess my kvetching over the device and how worthless it is primarily is based on the way my generation has been able to use things like pens, pencils, paper, flipping switches, pressing buttons and using other accessories to achieve our daily goals.

Unfortunately with Christmas just around the corner, I am sure for the second year in a row that Echos and Echo Dots will be found nestling under lots of trees and many of them as worthless as the box they came in.

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