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Genuinely creepy; your kids toys may be listening

Much has been made of the National Security Agency’s spy-on-Americans program, with one judge in Washington concluding the interception of private information probably is unconstitutional.

But it appears that the NSA may be only a bit player in the spy games these days, what with toys, software, televisions and more capable of recording conversations in Americans’ homes and transmitting it via the Web, according to a privacy organization.

It’s why the Electronic Privacy Information Center is seeking an investigation of the practice.

EPIC has asked the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice to host a workshop regarding “always-on” consumer devices. The devices routinely record and store private communications from inside Americans’ homes, sometimes even forwarding the data to outside agencies. But the practices may violate wiretap restrictions, state privacy laws, the Federal Trace Commission Act and more, the privacy group says.

A letter Friday from EPIC Executive Director Marc Rotenberg and others to Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Federal Trade Commission Chairwoman Edith Ramirez states the problem of “surreptitious” recording inside consumers’ homes.

They ask the FTC to undertake a sector-wide investigation and urge the Department of Justice to determine “whether these devices violate federal wiretap laws that prohibit the unlawful interception of private communications.”

“Police State USA: How Orwell’s Nightmare is Becoming our Reality,” is the basic handbook on how American arrived at the point of being a de facto police state that essentially ignores the Constitution.

For example, EPIC reported, Google’s Chromium browser contains code that routinely captures private communications.

According to Rick Falkvinge, the founder of Sweden’s Pirate party, ‘Without consent, Google’s code had downloaded a black box of code that – according to itself – had turned on the microphone and was actively listening to your room.’”

EPIC said Google “conceded that the browser contained this code.”

As a result, the browser “constantly ‘listens’ to the user using the computer’s built-in microphone, and when the user speaks the words ‘OK Google,’ Chromium activates a voice-to-text search function. This means that Chromium users are subject to constant voice recording in their private homes, without their permission or even their knowledge.”

Earlier, the group had cited Mattel’s “Hello Barbie,” a WiFi-connected doll with a built-in microphone.

“Hello Barbie records and transmits children’s conversations to Mattel, where they are analyzed to determine ‘all the child’s likes and dislikes.’ … Kids using ‘Hello Barbie’ won’t only be talking to a doll, they’ll be talking directly to a toy conglomerate whose only interest in them is financial,” EPIC reported.

Samsung’s Internet-connected SmartTV also has a built-in mic that always is on and “routinely intercepts and records the private communications of consumers in their homes.”

“When the voice recognition feature is enabled, everything a user says in front of the Samsung SmartTV is recorded and transmitted over the Internet to a third party regardless whether it is related to the provision of the service.”

A complaint already is pending on that problem, EPIC told Lynch.

Then there’s Microsoft. Its voice and motion recorder called Kinect “is now installed in Xbox video-game consoles.”

“The Kinect sensor tracks and records users’ voice and hand gestures when users say the word ‘Xbox’ followed by various permissible command options.” The letter explains that to accomplish this, the Xbox console “monitors conversations taking place around it, even when Xbox is turned off.”

Amazon is in the game, too.

“Amazon’s voice-activated computer program, ‘Alexa,’ is becoming increasingly prominent in the consumer marketplace. Amazon has deployed its Alexa ‘always on’ voice recognition software in its own Internet-connected devices, and has made the Alexa voice recognition software available to third-party developers,” the complaint alleges.

And there’s more.

“Next Labs, a company owned by Google, is the manufacturer of Internet-connected thermostats, smoke detectors and security cameras targeted to home owners. The ‘Nest Cam’ is equipped with a microphone, and streams video and sound to a consumer’s smart phone in real time. Nest also records and stores 30 days of the footage that it collects from inside the homes of consumers,” the group said.

Canary Connect security systems access and use similar information, EPIC said.

“By introducing ‘always on’ voice recording into ordinary consumer products such as computers, televisions and toys, companies are listening to consumers in the most private spaces. … It is also genuinely creepy.”

Among the questions that need to be answered, EPIC said, is how such technology works and what is captured. Also, where is the data stored, who has access to it and what laws apply.

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