The Spy We Love Why the Germans let Google and Amazon into the living room

The Spy We Love Why the Germans let Google and Amazon into the living room

The Spy We Love Why the Germans let Google and Amazon into the living room
Alexa: the spy we love.  Source: Illustration: Daniel Stolle

When she wakes up in the morning, Maren Biermann seeks advice from Alexa. At the weekend, when she can stay in bed a little longer, she asks from the bedroom how the weather will be. During the week, on the way to the bathroom, she asks how long it will take to get to the office. And as soon as the name Alexa echoes through the apartment, the upper edge of the black box glows turquoise-blue. A little later, Alexa says that it will be warm. Or that traffic is jammed in downtown Düsseldorf.

Alexa is a virtual roommate that the technology company created to bind its customers more closely. Another device that millions of people trust with their thoughts, habits and feelings. Consumer advocates see the end of data protection approaching with it. Maren Biermann, tall, sporty, sees Alexa primarily as a toy.

The 32-year-old is not alone in this. The company has sold an estimated eleven million boxes worldwide that Amazon has christened Echo. “We haven’t had a product that has been in demand anywhere near as much as the Echo boxes in a comparable period of time,” says an Amazon manager. According to a representative survey by the data service provider Statista, over 40 percent of Germans find such a voice-controlled assistant attractive. And this despite the fact that the Forsa polls determined two years ago: Not even one in three Germans trusts technology companies to handle their data carefully. Retail groups, insurance companies and the tax office ranked significantly higher up in this ranking.

This is how it works …

The Germans, of all people, who suffered total surveillance in two authoritarian regimes – in Nazi Germany and in the GDR – voluntarily put the perfect tool for eavesdropping in their living room. Why? Because the tech companies make their customers dependent on them with increasingly sophisticated strategies. And because it’s all a question of psychology.

The careless handling of data began with Googling for information and shopping online, which was so much easier than rushing through congested streets and supermarkets. Then came the social networks. At first people only left a few keywords, then embarrassing photos, they posted political opinions and personal bests during the evening jogging session. Ultimately, the smartphones became a helper in all situations – and knew even better about their owners.

Everything you always wanted to know from Alexa …

Everything should be as comfortable as possible

That happened because it was funny or just practical. And because it didn’t look dangerous. “The concrete benefit is worth more to us than the hypothetical disadvantage,” says Maximilian von Grafenstein, who heads a research project on data protection in the increasingly digital world at the Institute for and Society. With every new app and convenience, people gave up a little more of their privacy.