Never Trust Your Servants

Why would you pay to put a spy into your own home?

Ever watch an old movie and think, "Gee, I wish I had a butler/maid/cook/servant like they did back then?"

Today, Donald Trump has a butler and Arnold Schwarzenegger had a housekeeper who also provided other services, but most ordinary people will live out our lives and never even know anybody with live-in servants.  Some upper-middle-class families may hire a cleaning or lawn-care service which do some of the work that household staff once did, but it's not the same thing really - you don't choose the people, they don't live with you, they aren't on call, and particularly they don't wear those fetching maid costumes depicted on the side of their trucks.

The very rich and powerful have always had servants and always will.  Up until WWII, though, it wasn't uncommon for ordinary middle-class Americans to have "help" - a hired hand, a cook, perhaps a laundress or maid of some kind.  Sometimes the staff had their own homes and only came to work during the day, but many otherwise ordinary Victorian houses were built with servants' quarters on the expectation that they'd be needed.

As you'd imagine, the type of people who filled those positions were those with next to no education or other opportunities, but they had to have a job or they'd starve.  Indeed, among the lower class, a job as a servant was considered pretty decent - at least you'd be well clothed, well housed, and tolerably well fed.

Why don't we have servants today?  Well, you're paying for them, you're just not getting their work: the people 150 years ago who would have been servants or starved, today subsist on welfare payments.  They are less well clothed, less well housed, less well fed, and a whole lot less safe than they'd be with an honest job in domestic service, but in our enlightened era, we know better than to expect the ill-educated to do any actual work.

Every Silver Lining Has Its Cloud

As pleasant as it might be to think of having a minion at your beck and call, the literature of Victorian times is filled with complaints of the difficulties in finding servants who are honest, competent, and affordable.  By definition a servant has to pretty much have the run of your house; it's all to easy for small valuables to vanish, never to be seen again.

Even worse, a good servant is never heard and rarely seen, but is always listening.  Would you feel comfortable having another person, not a member of your family but simply an employee, who knew all the secrets of your home life?  Very few of us would like to find our name in a headline like "What Princess Diana's Butler Saw."

Indeed, the Queen was not amused when Paul Burrell wrote his tell-all book, but at least he was open about it, Diana herself was dead, and the rest of the royals could buy the book to find out what he had to say.  Historically, servants were notorious for gossiping with other people's servants, or even taking money from rival families to betray secrets.

Perhaps we're better off without servants, but it looks like we may be about to learn this old lesson in a whole new way.  Mark Zuckerberg's recent unnerving testimony before Congress has shone a harsh light on just how much Facebook knows about you, but Facebook is limited to knowing what you tell it, or what you use your computer for.

Amazon's Echo has no such limitation, and that provides a whole new potential level of intrusion:

Amazon won’t fight a subpoena that had hoped to use information gathered from an Echo speaker in the investigation of a murder case. Amazon had previously refused to hand over information to the cops, citing First Amendment protections, but has now acquiesced after the defendant gave authorities permission to access the data.

In this case, the police aren't the problem - they were following proper legal means to get at the data, and the person whose data it was gave them permission anyway.  The defendant, on trial for murder, believes that the Echo's recordings will prove that he didn't kill anybody.

Assuming he's innocent, we wish him every success in proving that innocence via whatever technical means are available to him through the legal process.  The mere fact that casual conversations might have been recorded permanently in the cloud, though, is heart-stopping: do we really want to own a device that records everything in earshot, all the time, and hangs onto it apparently forever, all the better to serve us, of course?

Back in the day, the master and the mistress of the house had to whisper their secrets in private, late at night, hoping that no servant was listening at the keyhole.  That won't work with electronic servants whose ears are far better than any human's.

Privacy is truly dead.

Kings like Louis XIII were noted to be a little strange in the head, perhaps because literally nothing they did was ever private including their wedding night.  Until the 20th century, kings and queens of England had a senior official - the Groom of the Stool for kings and the First Lady of the Bedchamber for queens - whose job was to help them squeeze the Charmin'.

At that time, of course, the king or the ruling squire had the power to execute any minion who was found to be untrustworthy based either on proof, suspicion, or merely bad breath.  This might have reduced unwanted information transfer a bit, but in these modern times, we have to make do with hush money which may or may not work any better and is definitely less permanent.

Yet the public Royal Flush treatment may be what we all have to look forward to.  The purpose of the Amazon Echo, and Alexa the software "assistant," is to help their real masters make more sales.  They manage this feat of commercial magic by knowing everything you ever said and making useful suggestions based on your utterances - such as "Would you like to place a same-day order for Ex-Lax?  Extra strength or normal?"

Could it be that we're just old-fashioned in our sense of what we want strangers to know about our lives?  As long ago as 2013, Forbes reported that "New Survey Suggests Millennials Have No Idea What Privacy Means."  When all the world is within range of an Echo or one of its competitors, that will be literally true.  If we're all living in glass houses, who will be able to throw stones?

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other articles by Petrarch or other articles on Business.
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