FBI Response To FOIA Request About Whether It Is Hacking Your Amazon Echo: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

from the so,-yes-then? dept

We've talked in the past about how claims of dangerous silence from certain law enforcement and intelligence groups within the American government are so much the crying of "wolf!" As some will decry the use of security tools like encryption, or other privacy tools, the fact is that the so-called "internet of things" industry has created what is essentially an invited-in army of confidential informants. Domestic surveillance, once a time-consuming, laborious, and difficult task for those doing the spying has since become laughably easy by relative standards. One can imagine J. Edgar Hoover having to change his trousers if he learned exactly to what degree Americans today have accepted hackable or easily-compromised cameras and microphones into our homes, so excited would he be.

In this era, then, it would seem the public buying these IoT products would have an interest in learning if their government is using those products against them in this way. In large part, it seems that the government ain't telling. Take the Amazon Echo, for instance, a device with a microphone that is voice-activated to play your favorite music, tell you the weather, read you the latest news, *cough*-let the government spy on you-*cough*, tells you the traffic, and reads you your audiobook-- wait, what was that government spying thing? Is that for real?

Gizmodo recently tried to find out via an FOIA request. The government's response was a shrug of the shoulders and the wink of an eye.

Back in March, I filed a Freedom of Information request with the FBI asking if the agency had ever wiretapped an Amazon Echo. This week I got a response: “We can neither confirm nor deny...”

In many ways the Echo is a law enforcement dream. Imagine if you could go back in time and tell police that one day people would willingly put microphones in their own homes that, with a little hacking, could be heard from anywhere in the world 24/7. First, you’d need to explain what hacking was, but then they’d be like, “Nah bruh, yer pullin’ my leg.”
The full FOIA response is embedded below. As Gizmodo notes, there is neither a confirmation or denial that records of surveillance by Echo exist, and the letter even goes on to insist that this response shouldn't be taken to mean that there are in fact such records. But, particularly in a post-Snowden world in which we live, what else can you expect the public to think? With all that's gone on, both the innocent and nefarious alike would be crazy not to simply operate on the assumption that the alphabet agencies were hacking all the internet of things it could before this FOIA response. The government's non-answer in this case will serve as confirmation for some and a return to this SOP for most others.

And screaming in the vaccum of certainty here is the overriding sense that any oversight of these surveillance practices that might exist is sorely lacking in teeth. It's difficult not to picture Americans shuffling within their own homes, casting worried looks at the devices around them, wondering for all the world when each might be weaponized as a telescreen. If the internet of things is going to become a new great industry, this is certainly going to be one of the hurdles it must overcome.



Filed Under: amazon echo, fbi, foia, glomar response, internet of things, iot


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  • icon
    Jeremy Lyman (profile), 13 May 2016 @ 10:41am

    Microphones everywhere.

    Wasn't there a more concrete report of the government remotely activating smartphones to listen in on whatever they'd like? Did the newfangled smartphone industry overcome that hurdle, or did we just forget?

    I think the larger issue than "insert new technology here" can be hacked is that there are malicious hackers exempt from laws meant to protect us from intrusion; and they are the government.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      John Fenderson (profile), 14 May 2016 @ 6:23am

      Re: Microphones everywhere.

      While both are equally terrible in the abstract, I am more concerned about government hacking than other criminal hacking.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    JustShutUpAndObey, 13 May 2016 @ 10:55am

    Always on

    My favorite part about the Amazon Echo is that it is always on, always listening, and has no off switch. It does have a power plug you can pull (for now...)

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Machin Shin (profile), 13 May 2016 @ 11:01am

    Hate the double edge.

    I can remember when the Echo first came out. Clearly remember hearing about the features and all it could do. For a second I was excited by the possibilities. Then reading on I get to the part talking about being able to pick up anything above a whisper from across the room even while music is playing, and all this is analyzed by your friendly Amazon.....

    My mind shifted gears so fast it hurt. From "Dude this sounds awesome" to "NOPE NOPE NOPE".

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 13 May 2016 @ 11:27am

      Re: Hate the double edge.

      >My mind shifted gears so fast it hurt.

      Hang around this site too long and that will become your default state.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 13 May 2016 @ 11:50am

        Re: Re: Hate the double edge.

        >My mind shifted gears so fast it hurt.

        "Hang around this site too long and that will become your default state."

        you don't have to "hang out here too long" for that to be your default state, you just have to be able to parse the information you come across in your daily life.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    ThatOneOtherGuy, 13 May 2016 @ 11:01am

    Milton FTW

    Here's a thought.

    Just put together a special cut of the "Office Space" audio track with only the scenes where Milton does his best mumbling.

    Set up an audio player on auto-repeat, and leave it running where the echo can hear it.

    Hilarity ensues...

    That would pretty much "answer" the question wouldn't it?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 13 May 2016 @ 11:40am

      Re: Milton FTW

      You'd still be flagged as a terrorist. "Too mumbly. Sounds suspicious."
      In fact, wasn't there a report telling FBI agents or police in general to be suspicious of anyone acting "too normal"? We're all terrorists.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 13 May 2016 @ 3:20pm

      Re: Milton FTW

      Too much fuss and bother. My answer is PULL THE PLUG. I never turn on my cell phone unless I absolutely need it. If I suspect someone hacking it and turning it on remotely, I pull the battery.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Nimas, 13 May 2016 @ 11:22am

    Crying Wolf

    I know it's not what you meant, but in the story of the boy who cried wolf, there actually turned out to be a wolf in the end. I'm not sure 'going dark' ever will.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 May 2016 @ 11:57am

    No Denial

    So, basically, the FBI does not deny that it uses the Amazon Echo for wiretaps. This probably makes Amazon really proud.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 13 May 2016 @ 12:00pm

    So much wasted effort...

    They could have responded with so much less words.

    "Yes, we absolutely are, and we feel safe saying so because the majority of people are too stupid and too enamoured of their new toys that even after confirming this they'll still continue to use the product and ones like it.

    Have a nice (recorded) day,
    FBI"

    Or if they really wanted to save words:

    "What do you think? - FBI"

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      I.T. Guy, 13 May 2016 @ 12:38pm

      Re: So much wasted effort...

      Awesomeness in the last sentence.

      Asking if the FBI had ever wiretapped an Amazon Echo they replied: "What do you think?" [Pictures an Italian mobster flipping a coin with a thick Brooklyn accent]

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    I.T. Guy, 13 May 2016 @ 12:32pm

    "In many ways the Echo is a law enforcement dream. Imagine if you could go back in time and tell police that one day people would willingly put microphones in their own homes that, with a little hacking, could be heard from anywhere in the world 24/7. First, you’d need to explain what hacking was, but then they’d be like, “Nah bruh, yer pullin’ my leg.”"

    Nuh uh... bruh. You'd be called a conspiracy theorist and told how crazy you are.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 May 2016 @ 1:12pm

    You missed a telling detail...

    The mere acknowledgement of whether or not the FBI has any such records in and of itself would disclose techniques, procedures, and/or guidelines that could reasonably be expected to risk circumvention of the law.

    What they just said is that those techniques, procedures and guidelines could reasonably be expected to risk circumvention of the law. ... by those who use them.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Jeffrey Nonken (profile), 13 May 2016 @ 5:04pm

    Amazon Echo is doubleplusgood!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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