Large swaths of the public busily outfitted their own personal cells in a corporate panopticon, following friendly IKEA-style diagrams and lulled by blue-green LED glows, in the pursuit of voice-activated toasters. Here we insert a record-scratch quick-cut to show the NSA, sweating for years over the secretive labor of clandestine wiretapping of the American public, shaking its head in disbelief.
This is, of course, old news, but it bears repeating: The Amazon Echo records everything it hears in your home, 24/7, and archives it to Amazon’s cloud storage.
The Always-On Evil Microphone is cartoonishly villainous yet wholly unsurprising. Perhaps you don’t subscribe to the notion that Facebook always listens through your phone’s mic, but ask yourself at least this in all honesty: Do you think the Echo “mute” button really does anything?
Alexagate is an adversarial retrofit. It is useless without the context of an Amazon Echo, in the same way that a phone case is useless without a phone. Unlike a case, meant to preserve the device it holds in as close to a factory-direct state as possible—or, variably, to compensate for poor cell network receiver architecture, or to shore up the hubristically poor structural integrity of a too thinly milled aluminum unibody – Alexagate specifically hamstrings the Echo manufacturer’s intent.
The Amazon Echo has one fatal flaw, that is (still) shared among all Internet Of Things devices: It is a physical object. This inescapably allows users certain affordances-among them that the Echo can be forced to interact with other physical objects. There may be No User Serviceable Parts Inside, but conversely, there can always be a company-inaccessible part on top.
Alexagate is hardware hacking to reduce functionality. Though “human-centered design” is at this point a meaningless jargon term to fill space in decks and design firms’ About pages (Alexagate’s relationship to humans is up to the user), we might at least term it “anti-corporate design.” Alexagate retrofits UX to meet a different set of priorities.
Perhaps the talking toaster is now an inextricable part of the human futurist psyche. So too, we hope, are the tools to break it.
– Daniel Greenberg