Ohm-itted Gravity; Data Privacy Concerns Related to Amazon Alexa Smart Home Devices

Bulmer, Luke, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Barnes, Adam, Electrical and Computer Engineering, University of Virginia
Earle, Joshua, Engineering and Society, University of Virginia

For my technical project, me and my partner were involved in the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering department’s Hypersonic ReEntry Deployable Glider Experiment (HEDGE) as part of an electrical and computer engineering subteam. The overall goal of the HEDGE mission is to demonstrate the viability of using CubeSats for experiments on hypersonic flight. The mission involves designing and building a CubeSat that functions as a hypersonic glider. The CubeSat will then be launched into orbit, where it will orbit for approximately three weeks before reentering the atmosphere at hypersonic speeds. As the CubeSat burns up in the atmosphere, it will record pressure and temperature data and transmit this data back to a ground station, with this data being used to better understand hypersonic flight. The objective of the electrical and computer engineering subteam was to integrate the Endurosat On-Board Computer (OBC) with the temperature and pressure sensors and the Iridium 9603 Transceiver, which enables communication between the CubeSat and the ground station. The portion of the project I was involved in was the integration of the transceiver.
The integration of the transceiver consisted of two primary tasks. The first task was designing hardware to house the transceiver and electrically connect it to the OBC. This task was accomplished by designing, populating, and testing a printed circuit board (PCB) for the transceiver. The PCB was designed according to the PC/104 design specifications, which ensured that the board would fit within the confines of the CubeSat and could be stacked on top of the OBC and any other auxiliary boards. The PC/104 specification also features a common bus, which allows for both power and data to be easily transferred between the OBC, the transceiver, the pressure and temperature sensors, and any other electrical systems. The second task for integrating the transceiver was to create a software library to enable communication with the OBC. This library was built off the UART serial communication protocol, and consisted of a list of commands that could be called by the OBC to perform various tasks with the transceiver. After completing these two tasks, the functionality of the transceiver was verified by emulating the OBC on a microcontroller, connecting the microcontroller to the transceiver’s PCB, and calling commands from the software library on the microcontroller.
For my STS project, I sought to answer the question of what the data privacy concerns are related to Amazon Alexa smart home devices. I selected this topic due to the increased adoption of smart home devices, growing interest in the Internet of Things (IoT), and the rise of data privacy concerns among the general public in the United States. I set out to answer this question by performing a literature review of existing primary sources concerning data privacy and the Amazon Alexa, as well as patents related to data collection capabilities of Alexa, and then analyzing these results using the Social Construction of Technology framework. Within this framework, the primary groups I was concerned with were Alexa users, Amazon, and the government and law enforcement agencies. Some of the texts I examined included Zuboff’s the Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Sadowski’s Too Smart: How Digital Capitalism is Extracting Data, Controlling Our Lives, and Taking Over the World, and Wittkower’s What It’s Like to be a Bot. The patents I examined described capabilities such as creating profiles for users with attributes such as age, gender, and ethnic background, identifying users’ interests by listening for keywords they repeat, and pre-wakeword listening capabilities.
Ultimately, my results demonstrated that not only does Amazon, the government, and law enforcement agencies have tangible benefits from collecting sensitive user data, Alexa is more than capable of performing this data collection. The patents researched demonstrated that Amazon is actively pouring resources into enhancing Alexa’s data collection capabilities, and the recent advances in machine learning based artificial intelligence will only bolster their progress. Sources argued that in the 21st century, data is a new form of capital, creating a direct incentive for corporations to collect, store, and process as much data as they can. Steps must be taken to regulate the collection and exchange of user data to protect user privacy before it is too late.

BS (Bachelor of Science)

School of Engineering and Applied Science

Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering

Technical Advisor: Adam Barnes

STS Advisor: Joshua Earle

Technical Team Members: Justin Casotti, Daniel Goodman, Connor Schichtel

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