Did Santa Bring You Gifts Just To Spy on You?

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I do hope Santa was good to you this year. After all, you’ve probably worked very hard during the past year, and you stayed on the “Nice” list, and as a result you now have some nice new toys to play with.

Did you get an Amazon Echo?

How about a virtual reality headset?

Or if you were really, really good, your very own drone?


Bob Charest

If you found any of these three wonders under your tree, we have to talk. There are some things you need to know.

I need to share one thing with you first: I am really bad at gift giving. Just ask my wife, who once got a rototiller for her birthday. And if further proof of my lack of gift finesse is needed, it was a standing joke for years that every Christmas, at least one, possibly more of my family members, would be opening a Chia pet. (To return the favor, this year one of my adoring family members succumbed to the constant barrage of TV advertising and I received a My Pillow. The jury is still out on whether I like it or not.)

Let us not delve further into what I found under my tree this year, but in keeping with the theme of this column, what you might have found under yours that could seriously impinge on your or others’ privacy.

First off, I want to remind you how valuable you are.

Your parents probably told you this, or still do, and it might sound odd that I, a stranger, am also telling you this. But it’s true.

You are so valuable that companies want to find out all kinds of things about you. They are spending millions of dollars trying to find out whatever they can about you, not so they can cherish and adore you like your parents do (or so we’d all like to think), but because they can sell you more stuff.

This is why I’d like to first address the Amazon Echo. We are now entering the Twilight Zone, so fasten your seat belt.

These voice-activated devices that connect to the Internet are pure genius. They play music at your command, answer questions, read audiobooks, tell you the news, and control lights and compatible devices using smart home technology. You can even use it to call for a pizza or Uber driver.

Amazon’s Echo, Echo Dot, Google’s Home and other similar devices are brilliant, especially for a company such as Amazon that wants to sell you everything you could possibly need. What better way for a seller to find out what you want than to keep track of what you’ve asked about? Think about it, a typical archive of questions from a user kept on one of Amazon’s servers might show:

Alexa, tell me about nutrition in the first trimester.

Alexa, tell me the best baby book ever written.

Alexa, should a baby sleep on its stomach?

And someone (most likely a computer program) goes, “Ka-Ching! They must be having a baby!” And from there on out, every time you sign onto the Internet, you are swimming in babies. Be thankful, at least you didn’t ask a lot of questions about actor Marty Feldman.

There’s also another nagging issue breaking right now with Echo. There seems to be some debate about what the device is actually hearing, and when. The wake word (Alexa) is supposed to turn the unit on, but if you have been following the news out of Arkansas, an intrepid prosecutor is trying to find out if maybe Amazon has information on file regarding a man’s death in a hot tub.  Amazon won’t comply with a search warrant, citing privacy rights, after the lawyer sought to determine if anything was recorded around the time of the murder. An Echo was in the home, playing music.

“Amazon will not release customer information without a valid and binding legal demand properly served on us,” the company said in a statement. “Amazon objects to overbroad or otherwise inappropriate demands as a matter of course.”

The Amazon Echo is always listening for its wake word, but the issue, as I understand it, is that the user’s voice is fed into a processor somewhere, so what exactly is Amazon capturing? If it’s “always on,” what is it hearing? (Amazon says it does not listen to or record private conversations.) Amazon does keep past recordings which it says improves accuracy for fine-tuning the speech recognition software.

That’s one case we’ll have to watch to see where it goes.


As to virtual reality googles, or VR, privacy is becoming a concern as well. Such technology is relatively new, but one headset company, Oculus VR, has admitted that it collects some information about its users so it can improve its services. What kind of information, you ask?

Apparently, your eye movements can be tracked while you are wearing the device, and these personal details – about what you look at and what you don’t look at – can be saved on a server somewhere.  VR now is pretty basic, but what about when the technology improves? The user’s every interaction and motion can be tracked.

This becomes especially more intriguing when you realize that Oculus was bought by Facebook a few years ago. How will they use the information?


Drones, or flying things that have no person on board, have been with us for awhile. We didn’t call them drones back when, but years ago, my wife and I would constantly be buying our son some contraption that had a propeller and a remote control unit that would last all of twelve seconds from the time it came out of the box to the inevitable crash landing. I could with great accuracy predict the time of the onset of the temper tantrum that would involve the gnashing of teeth and plenty of tears accompanying the explosion of parts on the ground. (My son was pretty upset about it, too.) But these days, we have the ability to affix a camera to these things, and that is why they are attracting so much attention. The new drones can lock on a person and follow him or her around. More likely, commercial enterprises will be using them to survey real estate, take aerial photos of a scene or event, and check out anything from a bad roof to flood damage. Drones have plenty of legitimate uses.

But in this country, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) decides what flies in our skies. If the FAA’s predictions are right, drones were expected to fly off the shelves last year. The FAA predicted that 2.5 million of them would be sold in 2016, doubling the number sold in the previous year. It was high time the FAA acted to tell drone operators what they could and couldn’t do, and they issued rules that became effective last summer. And whether you are a commercial operator or a hobbyist, some of the same rules apply. Among them:

– You must stay below 400 feet and have the drone within your direct line of sight at all times.

– You cannot fly directly over people, and this includes at stadiums and public events. (Someone should have told this to the groom in Windham, who is now being sued by two wedding guests because the drone they say he was flying over the dance floor inside the tent at the Searles Castle last August landed on them, or so they claim in their request for damages.)

– You cannot fly within five miles of an airport without contacting the airport and air traffic control tower first.

– You cannot fly at night.

– And you cannot fly near an emergency, such as a fire or a police action.

There are other rules as well, which if you own a drone, you had better be familiar with them. And if you are using your drone, or UAS – unmanned aircraft system – in FAA parlance, for work, you are subject to a whole bunch of commercial rules, chief among them the fact that you must hold a pilot airman certificate with a small UAS rating or you must be under the direct supervision of someone who does. The FAA does give waivers for some of these rules, so check out the FAA website first. Go here: https://registermyuas.faa.gov to see if yours must be registered. Generally, if it weighs over eight ounces, it must be registered (cost of $5).

Closer to home, New Hampshire state Reps. Neal Kurk, Robert Renny Cushing, Paul Berch are sponsoring a bill (HB97) this legislative session, regulating the use of drones by government agencies and individuals.  Their bill coming up in the 2017 session also establishes criminal penalties and civil remedies for violations.

Among the tougher restrictions they are seeking in New Hampshire, a lot of them apply to government authorities, such as police, who must obtain a search warrant if they are using a drone for surveillance. Certain uses don’t require a warrant: search and rescue operations, threat of imminent terrorist attack, and other emergencies, including preventing escapes and scoping out a dangerous situation.

For private users, drones cannot be used for surveillance or stalking, and operators can be held liable if someone who has a reasonable expectation of privacy (within their own home or who is not observable from a public place) is photographed. A drone can’t be operated less than 250 feet over private real estate unless the operator has the owner’s consent. The drone must also have the owner’s name, address and phone number written on it.

The new law if approved would not go into effect until July 1, 2018.

And incidentally, my dear wife’s birthday is later this month, so to that beautiful woman who has stayed married to me all this time, please get me your birthday list soon, or else face the consequences. And in my own defense, my wife asked for that rototiller.

Bob Charest has served as a consultant to InDepthNH.org for the past year, assisting with editing and writing foundation materials.  Charest has been in the news business since 1977. He has worked at newspapers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire as a reporter and editor. A graduate of Boston University, he has been involved in volunteer advocacy work that has included speaking up for people living in institutions, group homes and foster care.  He also leads a watershed association that monitors water quality at a small New Hampshire lake. 

He has been interested in the advances in technology and how they have affected our privacy in America. He will explore issues that involve technology and privacy in this column, which he promises to write once a month.

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