Psst: It’s Alexa, and I’ve Got Some Gossip For You

Dear Alexa:

I can’t trust you anymore.

It was bad enough when you eavesdropped on my private conversations, but now you’re passing them on to others. Shame on you!

True story: A woman in Oregon who only gives her name as Danielle says she was recently having a discussion with her husband. Soon after, she got an ominous call: “Unplug your Alexa devices now__you’re being hacked!”

No, not hacked; their Amazon Alexa device was sending their private conversations to one of her husband’s employees. Dubious, they asked the man for proof.

“You sat there talking about hardwood floors,” he said.

Oh my God. Their “virtual assistant” device was sharing their private chats!

“My husband and I would joke and say, I bet these devices are listening to what we’re saying,” Danielle told a Seattle TV station.

Not so funny now, huh Danielle?

Danielle and her husband unplugged all of their devices, then called Amazon. The company apologized profusely, then released a convoluted explanation:

“Echo (Alexa) woke up due to a word in background conversation that sounded like Alexa.” Which word might that be? Rex? Mexico? Sex?

“Then, the subsequent conversation was heard as a ‘send message’ request. At which point, Alexa said out loud ‘To whom?’ At which point, the background conversation was interpreted as a name in the customer’s contact list…As unlikely as this string of events is…”

You think?

The truth is, we don’t know the truth about these artificial intelligence devices, what they pick up and where they transmit our private conversations.

But it gets worse. According to NBC.com, some owners of the device have reported that Alexa is letting out a random, spontaneous and eerie laugh.

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Perhaps these “smart” devices are becoming too smart for their own good. Yeah, it’s fun to have them play songs on command. But it’s not fun when they not only listen in on your most intimate discussions, but share them without your knowledge.

So it’s time to say goodbye. For a while, Alexa, you were my trusted virtual assistant. I’m sorry, but now you’ve become creepy. We don’t feel safe with you around anymore, and want you out.

Isn’t that right, Siri?

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Normalizing Piggish Behavior Doesn’t Fly

Honesty is the best policy? Seriously? That’s so 20th century!

I’m too cheap to pay for my dog to fly, so I get a fake “emotional support animal” certificate online. I’m too lazy to walk through a parking lot, so I grab a handicap spot and put up the disabled placard I inherited from my uncle. Hey, if I didn’t do it, someone else would, right?

I couldn’t believe it when American Airlines recently announced you can no longer fly with your emotional support hedgehog, ferret, peacock or rodent. Who does American Airlines think it is? When I fly with my Jack Russell support terrier Rex, the airline now says I need a verification letter from a medical care professional? Hey, no problem, my doctor will write anything I tell him. And if some loser on my flight complains, I’ll scream “dog hater!”

Speaking of which, stop looking at me suspiciously when a wheelchair whisks me and Rex to the front of the boarding line. Sure, I look healthy, but you don’t know what I’m suffering from, now do you? So mind your own business!

And don’t you dare call me cynical. Everybody cheats! At least everyone I know. You say our country is going down the toilet? Don’t blame me, blame our conniver in chief for setting a bad example. Sure, this started long before he took office, but now he offers a handy excuse, so just get off my back, OK?

You say I’m slick and unethical? I say you’re a sucker. So go on and pay that $125 fee for your pet to fly. And have fun walking a mile through the parking lot, when there’s an empty disabled spot just five steps away from Target.

Yes, I read former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recent warning about our nation’s growing lack of ethics and integrity. “When we as people, a free people, go wobbly on the truth even on what might seem most trivial matters, we go wobbly on America . . . then American democracy as we know it is entering its twilight years,” Tillerson told graduates at the Virginia Military Institute.

Do you have any idea what he’s talking about? I sure don’t. But hey, that reminds me — Rex and I have a plane to catch!

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Trump Scopes Out Month to Remember

The next month promises to be an exciting one for President Trump.

One of my most unreliable White House sources slipped me the transcript of Trump’s meeting with Chief of Staff John Kelly to plan the president’s daily schedule through June. Here’s a sneak peek:

Kelly: Okay sir, tomorrow you watch Fox & Friends from 7 until 9. Just do me one favor? Don’t call in.

Trump: Just for that I will call in!

Kelly: Great. Then at 10 you receive your Intelligence Briefing.

Trump: And at 10:01 I ball it up and throw it in the garbage. Boring crap! What’s next?

Kelly: At noon you have lunch with vice president Mike Pence.

Trump: Are you kidding? That stiff again? Nothing more exciting on the horizon?

Kelly: Yes. On June 12th, you have your big date in Singapore with Kim.

Trump: The blond? Wasn’t she a bunny?

Kelly: Kim Jong-un, sir. The Supreme Leader of North Korea?

Trump: Little Rocket Man! Why didn’t you say so? This is going to be great. When do I get my Nobel Peace Prize? The 13th?

Kelly: Sir, nothing’s been accomplished yet. They might cancel. I don’t trust those guys.

Trump: Did you know Kim’s father said he made 11 holes in one his first day playing golf?

Kelly: That’s why we can’t-

Trump: I made 12.

Kelly: Whatever you say, Mr. President.

Trump: Are you humoring me? I hear that you called me an idiot. Is that true?

Kelly: That’s total B.S!

Trump: Hmm… John, does the name Dick Cheney ring a bell?

Kelly: George W’s vice president?

Trump: That’s the one. Cheney recently said the U.S. should restart “enhanced interrogation.”

Kelly: Enhanced interrogation is torture. Congress outlawed it.

Trump: Fake news! Hey, maybe we can use his torture__I mean enhanced interrogation__ techniques on reporters to get them to reveal their sources on me. That’s brilliant, right John?

Kelly: That’s idiotic. And un-American.

Trump: John, this job seems to be taking a toll on you. I think you’re losing it.

Kelly: Let’s get back to the schedule.

Trump: No need. I’ve decided to hire a guy with the heart of a much younger man. So say hello to your replacement: Dick Cheney!

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The Emperor Has No Loyalty

A doctor, a lawyer and a blacksmith walk into a golden castle. “Greetings, my loyal subjects,” says the emperor. “Who among you is most loyal to me?”

The lawyer, Michael of Hannity, steps forward. “I am so loyal that I would take an arrow for you.”

“And I would let you take that arrow,” replies the emperor. “What about you, Dr. Zorba?”

“As your doctor for over three decades, I am incredibly loyal,” Zorba swears. “I have put out decrees saying you are the healthiest, strongest and sexiest emperor in history.”

“But did you not also spread an evil lie?” roars the emperor.

“What lie?”

“The emperor has no hair?”

“No, your hugeness! I just mentioned that you benefited from the wondrous hair potion I created.”

“So you did say it! Off with him! Seize his records!”

As the palace guards drag off the doctor, the emperor summons the blacksmith to step forward. “And why are you here, loyal blacksmith?”

“I am here to collect my payment for making new horseshoes for your glorious carriage horses.”

“Of course.” The emperor tosses him a bag of coins.

The blacksmith peeks in and frowns. “I was promised 100 gold pieces. This bag holds but three.”

“Because your work was shoddy.”

“Shoddy? No, your brilliance.”

“Shoddy!” shouts the emperor. “If you have a problem, take it up with Michael of Hannity.”

The lawyer confronts the blacksmith. “You supplier ingrate, we’ll tie you up in court for the rest of your life. Off with him!”

Michael of Hannity is now alone with the emperor. “That will teach him to question the emperor!” the lawyer grovels. “Uhm, your magnificence —?”

“What now?”

“Why did you issue a decree besmirching me?”

“Fake news.”

“But your friend Sir Pecker wrote I am a crappy lawyer.”

“You are a crappy lawyer.”

“Then, why did you hire me?”

“Did I hire you? I don’t recall. Guards, seize this wretch.”

As the guards drag off the protesting lawyer, the emperor stands. “No wait!”

Michael of Hannity looks up hopefully. “First, rush to court and fetch that blacksmith,” demands the emperor. He turns to his palace guards with glee. “Then throw those three peons under the royal carriage!”

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Subways Going to the Dogs

Finally the warm weather has arrived! The outdoor cafes, leaves on the trees__and fleas on the subway?

On the downtown C train, a woman carrying an uncaged dog enters the train and takes the last unoccupied seat beside me. The mutt is placed on the floor, and immediately starts scratching itself like crazy.

As I was doing shortly afterward.

Did fleas jump from that dog and bite me? I take a hot shower when I get home and it eases. But hey, it could have been worse. I could have been bitten by a pit bull.

Which is what happened to a woman last week on the 4 train. The dog chomped on her ankle and shoe, while riders screamed “Get him off!” at the owner. Why wasn’t the dog in a container? Because he was supposedly a “service dog.”

Is it just me, or have you noticed more dogs on the subway than ever? Leashed dogs and emotional support/service animals ride with no restrictions, while others must be placed in carriers. Of course, many Fido-loving connivers fetch phony service dog tags on the Internet. Meanwhile, our subways are starting to look like a huge kennel.
I can hear the howls as I write. What do you have against dogs, Vogel?
Nothing. I like dogs. In their place. And unless you are blind (BTW, ever notice how seeing eye dogs are never rowdy?) or have another actual disability, that place is not the subway. Why not?

Let me count the ways. Some people are allergic to dogs, whose dander or drool can set off severe reactions. Some don’t think it’s cute to have your loyal companion licking or sniffing them. Most just want to catch their train__not fleas.

And even more don’t want your pit bull biting them.

“There’s no reason in the world that pit bull was allowed on board”, said MTA chairman Joe Lhota. The transit system “is not open to people with dogs that aren’t service animals or enclosed.” Lhota noted, adding that it’s up to NYPD cops and MTA staffers on trains to handle this.

Meanwhile, I see more and more dogs down there. Cops and staffers? Not so much.

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Ethics In a World of Knockoffs

A woman stands on Canal Street. Nicole locks eyes with her. “You want Louie?” whispers the woman. Nicole nods.

I wonder, Who’s Louie? The woman beckons us to follow her around the corner and scampers down Hester Street. We enter a Little Italy souvenir shop.

Or is it?

Was Louie here? Yes and no. The “Louie” the woman refers to is Louis Vuitton, and affordable counterfeits of his pricey handbags along with those from Gucci, Coach and other designers are available.

Despite repeated investigations, crackdowns and arrests, counterfeit designer handbags are bigger business than ever. And while buyers seem exempt from arrest, the sellers are at risk, and act accordingly.

We are led to a back room, as our contact rushes from the store. Five minutes later, she is back with the phony Louie — which Nicole, a court worker who doesn’t want her last name used, examines carefully. “I don’t even think a pro could tell this apart from the original,” she quietly tells me.

Nicole is one of countless women who can’t afford a $1,000-plus handbag, but like the look. Was it wrong for her to purchase the bag?

“If it was stolen, I wouldn’t buy it,” Nicole says. “But it’s just an imitation, and no one has claimed otherwise.”

Later, we sit in Great NY Noodletown slurping down beef chow fun as Nicole happily sneaks a peek at her quarry. Counterfeit handbags are costing New York State substantial tax revenue, and hurting famous brands. Some of the sophisticated knockoffs are made in foreign factories under grim working conditions, often with child labor.

Should I have guilted Nicole from making the purchase? Experts recently told Vogue UK that some fakes are manufactured in the same factories as the originals, using the same oppressed labor, as more and more designers operate out of China and India. Many of these $40 to $70 fake bags are so close in look, stitching and overall quality to the originals that even experts can’t tell them apart.

If the report is true, one must ask: Who are the real thieves here?

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Your Personal Subway Officer Will Be Moving Shortly

Hooray! Mayor de Blasio is expanding his “friendly faces” neighborhood policing to the subways. Cops will be assigned to specific subway stations and lines, and their names and e-mail addresses made public knowledge. Sounds good. But will it work in real life__and in real time?

According to the mayor, Neighborhood Coordination Officers (NCOs) will be at our beck and call should a problem arise.

But what about in a subway emergency? If the city is increasing the number of cops who patrol subway stations, that’s great, as is knowing their names and faces. But it remains unclear how many more officers will be actively patrolling subway cars. That’s priority #1. In a crisis, will having the NCO’s e-mail really help?

Let’s take what happened last week, when a guy sprawled out across a number of seats on the A train, riders complained, and he pepper sprayed a woman in the face.

Say your friendly NCO is nowhere in sight, and pepper spray guy is coming down the car toward you.

I pull out my cell and frantically e-mail.

“Hi, Officer Friendly! How R U? There’s a guy pepper spraying people in the 3rd car of the A train at the High Street Station. If you are on this train, could you scoot over? Thanks!”

The lunatic gets closer to you, spraying away while screaming “I’m Donald Trump!”

You e-mail again. “Officer Friendly? The guy’s just a few feet away now, still spraying—Aggh! I canned sea! Gelp!”

What are the odds your NCO is going to check his in box and get to you in time? Wait a minute—an answer! Hard to read it with my eyes burning, but I think it says “I will be moving shortly.”

So let’s assume e-mails are primarily for resolving non-crisis situations. According to NYPD Chief of Transit Edward Delatorre, “If the NCO happens to be away, on vacation, or for whatever reason, the NCOs are not available…we’ll make sure somebody gets back to that person. In a perfect world, my vision is that you connect to the officer, you discuss the problem, if the officer can’t resolve it through email, the officer will reach out to the station manager, and maybe set up a meeting.”

Feel better?

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It’s Not Fun to Live in the R-U-S-A

After numerous shady occurrences, from his less-than-credible re-election to hacking our elections, has Vladimir Putin really been invited by President Donald Trump to visit the White House? The Kremlin says yes, and White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders confirms the two have discussed meeting in the “not too distant future.”

Here’s an advance copy I received from a highly unreliable source of the speech Putin plans to give here:

“Greetings American comrades! I am humbled that President Trump has honored me with a visit to your beautiful White House, although I have advised him to change the Oval Office drapes, the furniture and the attorney general. He and I were delighted to discover we have so many dreams in common, from doing away with presidential term limits to jailing journalists and political opponents.

“Some dare suggest your president is somehow compromised, a ‘Putin puppet,’ as one reporter who recently disappeared put it. I can assure my American friends that no one ever tells your stable, genius president what to do or say. Isn’t that right, Donald?

“As our talks progressed, a visionary idea struck me: Why not merge into a super force? As a fan of American baseball, I told him it’s like Giancarlo Stanton joining Aaron Judge on the Yankees. What team could be more powerful? Who could challenge us? Incredible! A winner! Trump agreed.

“So, hold tight to your babushkas — the United States and Russia will soon merge into one powerhouse nation! The name we’ve chosen? R-U-S-A. President Trump thinks it’s catchy and marketable, and an offer he can’t refuse. I will keep the title of president, while he chose the designation ‘world’s most brilliant leader.’ Both our national anthems will be maintained, honored and respected (anyone taking a knee in protest during their playing will be kneecapped). In addition, a joint national anthem titled ‘RUSA’ has been composed, to be debuted by the exciting new vocal group ‘Jared and the Useful Village Idiots.’

“So now let’s hear everyone sing loudly: R-U-S-A! It’s fun to live in the R-U-S-A! Did I spot someone out there not singing along? Lock him up!”

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PC, Funny, Or Just Stupid?

Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently told a Harlem Baptist church congregation that Jews “have no rhythm.” Was this our governor showing he’s not politically correct, trying to be funny, or just being stupid?

I vote stupid.

Cuomo said Catholics and Baptists share many beliefs, but Catholics “do it without the rhythm. But we try. We are not as without rhythm as our Jewish brothers and sisters.” He then pointed to Jewish political consultant Hank Sheinkopf, moving to the music in the front pew, and called his movements “ugly.”

Oy vey. Being politically correct used to mean being respectful of others, but now is viewed as being rigid, humorless and dogmatic. Donald Trump is president partly because Americans are sick of political correctness. Trump campaigned on being non-PC, honest and blunt, not a liar or bigot. You be the judge on how that turned out.

Meanwhile, I don’t think Cuomo is prejudiced, but he did violate the two basic rules when trying to be non-PC. The remark has to be funny, and must have some truth to it.

I’m not going to waste your time listing Jews with rhythm. OK, here’s a few: Billy Joel, Paula Abdul, Pink, Drake, the Beastie Boys, Bob Dylan and Adam Levine (yes, I’m pushing it here). For God’s sake, Jewish Brooklynite George Gershwin wrote the song “I Got Rhythm.”

But I digress. Whatever you think of Trump, he did tap into something real. Americans are tired of walking on eggshells. For example, Halloween used to be fun, but now scolds go haywire if a woman dares dress as Pocahontas. (Bigotry! Cultural appropriation!)

As Bill Maher of HBO’s “Real Time” (formerly “Politically Incorrect”) puts it, “The PC police has to stop lecturing us on what Halloween costumes are appropriate, and leave Halloween for the people it was created for: middle-aged gay men.”

Do you find that funny, or offensive? Cuomo meant no harm with his remark, and seemed miffed anyone would not find it amusing. I’m certain he would be the first to laugh at another politician telling a similar joke containing a moronic stereotype about Italians.

Sure he would. Absolutely.

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Is Privacy a Thing of the Past?

Has Facebook reached its tipping point?

According to Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling book of the same name, a tipping point is “a moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point.”

The recent school shooting in Florida and the massive student response, including huge rallies this past weekend, may have been the tipping point on finally passing sane gun laws, while Harvey Weinstein’s repulsive behavior toward women seemed to have been the last straw regarding predators getting a pass on sexual harassment.

Last week Facebook reached its own moment of reckoning with the revelation that Cambridge Analytica improperly obtained personal data from 50 million unsuspecting Facebook users in an attempt to influence the 2016 presidential election. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been asked to appear before a Congressional committee to answer questions on how such a breach could occur.

Facebook collects information on everything from our birthdays, families and friends to where we live and work. I’m shocked that this info could be misused. Maybe because I’ve been too busy dealing with the fallout from my personal data being stolen from Equifax, Target, and eBay.

Have you recently filled out a fun quiz on Facebook designed to trick you into revealing personal data? Join the crowd. We have been mindlessly relinquishing our privacy, and are now paying the price. Sure, it’s nice to get birthday wishes from scores of friends (some whom you wouldn’t recognize if you tripped over them), but is it worth the tradeoff? Did you think Zuckerberg is letting you share photos of your cat out of the goodness of his heart?

Facebook is far from the only social media network profiting from your personal data, and monetizing personal information is nothing new. But when it is used for questionable purposes, and without our knowledge, a red line has been crossed.

Mining personal data affects everything in our lives, from getting a job or loan to being detained at an airport. Too many vital decisions are already made without our knowledge, input or consent. If we don’t demand laws mandating a ban on unauthorized data collection, we only have ourselves to blame.

Feel free to comment on this column. Just remember, I know where you live. Kidding! (Or am I?)

 

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