A Creator Has Designed a Satirical Device to Counter Digital Surveillance

Erlend Pendergast has created a speculative device that chats with your Alexa about the Kardashians.

Tired of living in a dystopian reality where the digital world has made privacy a thing of the past? Why not distract your smart home assistant from spying on you by having it engage in idle chit chat with another device?

If creator Erlend Prendergast's speculative accessories, called CounterBug, are manufactured; that may just be a bizarre (but hilarious) solution to the throes of 'surveillance capitalism'. 

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Developed during Pendergast's final year on a Product Design course at the Glasgow School of Art, the devices are part of a satirical project highlighting the paranoia caused by lack of privacy in the digital age, as well as the inherent contradictions of consumerism.

Digital Trojan horses

On his website, Pendergast describes the problems people face in modern smart homes: "Whilst there are many who view these devices simply as helping hands," he says, "there are others who consider them to be Trojan horses in the age of digital surveillance."

The project, Pendergast told Dezeen, is "an alternative approach to digital self defense," and that it is intentionally "satirical and tongue-in-cheek".

"There is an inherent irony at the core of the project," he added, "because really the only way to defend yourself against Alexa is to not buy an Alexa."

Despite this, they tackle a real issue in the modern world. This year, an Ipsos and World Economic Forum survey showed a widespread distrust about how our private data is used by companies and governments.

With good reason — Amazon, for example, reportedly hire thousands of employees to listen to conversations picked up on their Echo devices.

Talking models

Pendergast designed a single base unit and three different attachments, each one carrying out a different function. All functions are based around disrupting Amazon Echos from performing unwanted data collection.

Murmur, for example, tries to confuse Amazon's targeted ad algorithms by whispering contradictory phrases into its microphone. An example, Pendergast suggests, is when the user is discussing political figures, such as the suffragette Pankhurst sisters, Murmur would whisper something about Kim Kardashian's book launch.

This would scramble the Amazon Echo's attempts to profile the user based on his or her preferences.

A Creator Has Designed a Satirical Device to Counter Digital Surveillance
Source: Erlend Prendergast

Blabber is designed for those who are embarrassed about the implications of someone eavesdropping on them through their device and what that might do to their social standing.

That's why it engages Alexa in desirable small talk, elevating the user's social standing back at Amazon's data collection vaults.

The device is switched on when the user leaves the house and chats autonomously with the smart home assistant about topics like literature, ethical retail, and animal charities. 

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A Creator Has Designed a Satirical Device to Counter Digital Surveillance
Source: Erlend Prendergast

The third accessory, Scramble, is aimed at preventing Alexa from overhearing trigger words that are monitored by the NSA, the National Security Agency in the United States. 

If the user says any words such as "pirate", "white noise" or "car bomb", Scramble attempts to interject by shouting a mundanity over the trigger word. 

A Creator Has Designed a Satirical Device to Counter Digital Surveillance
Source: Erlend Prendergast

 Pendergast's CounterBug designs are aimed mainly at those who have smart home devices, but also those who fear the dystopian, shady nature of data collection and profiling of users for targeted advertisements. 

Aside from designing accessories that could be characters in a bizarro Pixar-animated dark comedy, he has also highlighted the real worries surrounding smart home devices, and data collection, in general.

Even if his designs don't come to fruition, at least the thought of Amazon employees listening to a decoy device chat about the Kardashians is cause for a chuckle.

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