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Amazon Helps Government Tap Alexa's Accent Recognition

posted on: Nov 28, 2018

Michael Springmann/Arab America Contributing Writer

According to The InterceptAmazon’s Alexa voice recognition software might be used to track different ethnicities based on their speech.  The “in home” assistant would use information gleaned from “language accent, ethnic origin, emotion, gender, age, and background noise…[Moreover] The algorithm [a step-by-step procedure for solving a problem or accomplishing some end] would also consider a customer’s physical location — based on their IP address, primary shipping address, and browser settings — to help determine their accent.”

NOW, it’s aimed at marketing.  Amazon (owned by Jeff Bezos) acquired a patent on the concept in October 2018.

Jeff Bezos’ Amazon also has a $600 million contract with the American intelligence services, offering “a cloud storage service designed to handle classified information.” 

Big Question.  

What’s next?  Palestinians, other Arabs, and Muslims are not America’s favorite people.  Abroad, they are targets for visa refusals, loss of humanitarian funding (cf. UNRWA), and indiscriminate drone strikes (cf. Anwar al-Awlaki and son).  At home, they are targets for questionable legal persecution, cf. the LA 8, six Palestinians and a Kenyan sued for deportation for 20 years. 

Then, there was the Holy Land Foundation which was once the largest Islamic charity in the United States, but months after the 11 September 2001 attacks, the federal government shuttered the organization and seized its assets.

The first trial of the Holy Land Five was held in 2007 and ended in a hung jury. A second trial resulted in guilty verdicts. Both were marked by highly questionable procedures, including the admission of testimony from anonymous Israeli security agents. 

Will Alexa be used to target America’s disfavored peoples and religion?  Will Alexa help go after Palestinians protesting UNRWA’s defunding? Will Alexa single out Palestinians objecting to the Zionist “Deal of the Century”, Madison Avenue’s term for eliminating Palestine?

Great March of Return

Arab Countries

The Disfavored Religion

Civil Rights/Civil Wrongs

Amazon markets facial recognition software to police departments.  While this is a questionable procedure, the cameras used are in public places where people don’t have an expectation of privacy.  Alexa, though, is in your home–where you do have an expectation of privacy. No one anticipates being tracked because of his ethnic origin, accent,  gender, or “background noise” within his own four walls.

Which U.S. government agency or agencies might have an interest in such information?  And what would they do with it? The Intercept notes, according to “Andrew Crocker, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation…, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, makes it possible for the government to covertly demand such data. FISA governs electronic spying conducted to acquire information on foreign powers, allowing such monitoring without a warrant in some circumstances and in others under warrants issued by a court closed to the public, with only the government represented.”   (“As of 2013, the FISA court has denied only 12 warrants since its inception. It has granted more than 34,000 requests since its inception.”)

So, Alexa can secretly work for the FBI, CIA, NSA.  And Uncle Sam doesn’t always need a warrant. All Amazon requires is a National Security Letter.  “Since the first national security letter (NSL) statute was passed in 1986 and then dramatically expanded under the USA PATRIOT Act, the FBI has issued hundreds of thousands of such letters seeking the private telecommunications and financial records of Americans without any prior approval from courts. In addition to this immense investigatory power, NSL statutes also permit the FBI to unilaterally gag recipients and prevent them from criticizing such actions publicly.”  (N.B. This writer once had the U.S. government secretly seize his E-mail accounts, personal and business. His crime was defending a Muslim alien from FBI harassment while searching for a close relative.)

How Good Are These Voiceprints?  

According to a knowledgeable, well-traveled Arab journalist, it’s more difficult if the Arabs are speaking English.  However, Egyptians are easily singled out because they are incapable of pronouncing the letter P. For the rest, it’s slightly harder.  If the conversations are in Arabic, she remarked, it’s rather like distinguishing the accent of the Deep South from that of New York or New England.  However, even native Arabic speakers such as Saudis or Iraqis mistake Moroccans for Algerians, something those from the Maghreb wouldn’t do. Additionally, she commented, she was unable to tell Syrians and Lebanese apart from their speech, although those nationalities usually can.

And the Future?

The Intercept, in good American fashion, looks to existing laws and remedying their deficiencies as a solution.  The Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), dating from 1986, hasn’t caught up with technological threats to privacy protection.  The States, such as California and Illinois, the article observes, are making changes to current legislation and improving citizens” privacy in the face of advances in electronics and telecommunications.

The American Civil Liberties Union proposes “robustly protecting all personal electronic information; safeguarding location information; instituting oversight and reporting requirements; requiring a suppression remedy [illegally obtained information can’t be used in court]; crafting reasonable exceptions.” 

Yet, wouldn’t it be more effective to elect or appoint sensible officials with a sound moral basis to public office?  Good men can make a bad system work. But all the laws in the world won’t protect you from people who abuse them. Instead, swift, public punishments visited upon those who violate citizens’ privacy might be more effective than constantly amending legislation.


Michael Springmann is an attorney, author, political commentator, and former diplomat. He has written Visas for Al Qaeda: CIA Handouts That Rocked The World and a second book Goodbye, Europe? Hello, Chaos? Merkel’s Migrant Bomb. Both are available on Amazon. The books’ website is: