Saturday, May 06, 2017

Don't Look At Me

I finally gave in and bought a new laptop. My old one was six or seven years old, an eternity in computer years. Yes, it worked fine, more or less, but distinctly less. Just like you and me, while the mind was fine the body started to go. I might have been able to keep it humming along  with updates and judicial pruning of programs. But after I poured yet another tube of super glue into it and still couldn't secure the screen to the base, I decided it was best to let it drift off peacefully to that great Yahoo in the sky.

My new box is sleek and new and blemish free. But while it's screen is sharper, it's innards faster and it has that new keyboard smell, I still headed to my workshop as soon as I got it for an old school modification. There I took a roll of electrical tape and cut a tiny piece less than half an inch long and a quarter inch high. I took it back to the office and carefully placed it over the lens of the build in camera. As I did so I imagined some hacker in Bulgaria watching as his peep-hole view of me and my world slowly went dark.

It's not just me. Luminaries as diverse as the heads of Facebook and the FBI do the same. In an era when hacking a real concern, it's just one of the things you can do to secure your electronic world. Perhaps not as high on the list as having unique passwords, blocking your camera doesn't rise to the level of complete paranoia, but doesn't seem overly cautious either. Like locking your car door when you leave it at Target, it seems that while you should expect the best, it doesn't hurt to plan for the worst.

But while the little camera on your computer (or iPad or phone or even networked home security camera) certainly offers the possibility of someone hacking in and watching you, it's not the same as Amazon's newest product. The Echo Look is the latest of Amazon's family of voice powered computers, and adds eyes to those ears. So now you can not just ask Alexa what the weather is, you can query her if the outfit you're wearing is watertight, stylish and also makes your butt look smaller.

Looking like a giant Motrin on a stick, the Look has a camera and LED lights on its front. Like its sister devices, you talk to it, and it will respond: traffic, appointments, William Henry Harrison's wife's name. But going one better, the built-in camera enables it to take pictures and videos of you. Amazon envisions several uses for this. You might want to see how you look; there's an associated phone app that makes it into an electronic hand mirror. You might want to snap a pic, then create a catalog of you in your clothes so you'll know what looks best. And since you can turn around and hold your phone in your hand, you can indeed see how big your butt looks. Of course, theoretically, so can that guy in Bulgaria.

Using artificial intelligence it even goes one better. With a feature called Style Check, you can take two pictures, then have the Look tell you which looks best based on "fit, color, styling, and current trends." It displays both pictures side by side with a slider showing which "looks better" as a percentage. So a patterned blazer over a navy dress with matching pumps scores 64%, while a pink sweater jacket over the same dress with open toed shoes scores 36%. Would have been interesting to see how it handled a Trump for President tee shirt on one side, and the Hillary variant on the other. Or if it changed over time.

But back to security. Fashion advice is nice, but who thinks it's a good idea to put a camera in your closet, one that is always listening and ready to take stills of videos as you try on different outfits. It's one thing if the NSA comes calling because you're corresponding with a guy named Serge who has an email address in Donetsk. But do really want to chance being called out as a national security risk because you wear plaid pants with a striped top? Big Brother is indeed watching.


Marc Wollin of Bedford usually gets dressed in the dark. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

No comments: