By Mark Richards

Disney is about to launch a new streaming service. Meanwhile more and more of us have devices like Alexa in our homes. Is this a fantastic new era of entertainment and convenience? Or could it be rather more sinister? Will we end up paying a very heavy price for the films we watch?

Once upon a time, we lived in a product economy. We owned things. We owned cars and houses and we filled those houses with books and record collections and shelves full of DVDs.

Now, all that is changing – and it is changing more and more quickly. The product economy has given way to the subscription economy.

Cars? Uber is shortly going to make its debut on the US stock market, valued at over $100bn (£77bn). Houses? Who hasn’t heard of Generation Rent?

Books? Record collections? Box sets of The Sopranos and Breaking Bad? We read on Kindle Unlimited, stream our music from Spotify and watch everything on Netflix.

Well, we did watch everything on Netflix – or maybe on Amazon Prime. But here comes another streaming service, from the most famous name of them all…

Welcome to Disney Plus

Disney is going to launch a streaming service and – as the BBC’s North America reporter says – it is going to be a juggernaut. It is not going to happen immediately, as Disney has plenty of legal work to do to reclaim the rights to content sold to other streaming services. It may, therefore, be some time before we can subscribe to Disney Plus – at least in the UK – but who will be able to resist everything from Pixar, National Geographic, Star Wars and Marvel?

How much? In the US, just $6.99 a month or $69.99 a year – that is just over a fiver a month, or just over £50 a year. So there is only one question: is it coming out of your account or mine, darling?

Meanwhile, we will continue to subscribe to Amazon, Netflix and Spotify and send for an Uber. But why stop there? Fed up with the sofa or bored with your bed? Why not subscribe to your furniture as well. Feather launched last year and promises ‘furniture freedom.’

How do we pay?

The answer is obvious. We pay for these subscription services with a monthly direct debit. When we do not want the subscription any more we cancel the direct debit. How simple is that?

But that is only half the answer. We also pay with our information. How much does Amazon know about you? Every single product you have bought and browsed since you opened your account. Spotify and Netflix? Exactly the same. Throw in all the demographic information – name, age, where you live – and the increasingly sophisticated use of AI and the amount of information that is held and/or deduced by subscription services becomes alarming.

Never told Amazon or Netflix the ages of your children? Of course, you haven’t. Well, apart from the fact that five years ago you were downloading Toy Story and now you are downloading Avengers Assemble

Alexa is listening in

Amazon Alexa device on a shelf infront of gold mirror surrounded by house plants

…But it is not just your browsing history and the AI. You need something to fill the space where your DVDs used to be – what better than an Amazon Alexa, the home help that none of us can manage without. “Alexa, timer, three and a half minutes.” Surely there has never been a better way to boil an egg…

When the story came out last year it quickly became the stuff of urban legend. Alexa had mistakenly recorded a couple’s conversation and sent it to some of their friends. Privacy advocates had long been suggesting it could happen – and Amazon was equally quick to pour cold water on the idea. But happen it did.

Danielle, an Alexa user in Portland, in the USA, had installed Echo devices in every room in the house, accepting Amazon’s assurance that they would not invade her privacy. Then she received an alarming call from one of her husband’s work colleagues: “Unplug your Alexa devices right now. You’re being hacked.”

At first, Danielle did not believe it – until her husband’s colleague told her that she had been talking about hardwood floors and that Alexa had sent him the recording.

Amazon explained what had happened as a series of coincidences. Alexa heard something that sounded like her name. She heard something else that sounded like ‘send message.’ Something else that sounded like the name of a contact. Clearly, I am not cut out for this modern age: in 26 years of marriage, I have never said anything to my wife that sounded remotely like ‘send message’ – especially after a deeply erotic conversation about hardwood floors…

So are they listening?

I suspect the vast majority of people reading this article feel just like I do: they find the idea that Alexa could be broadcasting their conversations deeply disturbing. But there is worse to come.

It has now emerged that Amazon, Apple and Google all employ staff who listen to customer voice recordings from their smart speakers and voice assistant apps. The apparent reason is that it helps to improve the apps’ speech recognition. Quite clearly that is a logical development – the better the speech recognition, the more useful the app is.

…But there is another bite taken out of your privacy, with some of the reviewers who spoke to Bloomberg saying that they ‘shared amusing voice clips with one another in an internal chat room.’

That, sadly, is simply human nature. But supposing Danielle and her husband had been discussing something rather more intimate than hardwood flooring? Would that conversation have been shared as well?

Artificial intelligence working out the age of our children from the films we rent is one thing – Amazon employees drinking Coke, eating pizza and sharing our conversations is quite another.

Meanwhile in China…

We first wrote about China’s social credit score in October of last year. In nearly writing nearly 300 of these articles it is far and away the most sinister subject I have written about. Well-behaved, compliant citizens will see their credit score increase: they will gain access to cheaper loans, better schools and even the best dating sites. Those with a low social credit score – who have crossed against a red light or argued with state officials – will be denied access to travel, the best schools and even those dating sites.

But misbehaving in public is one thing. Surely what you say in the privacy of your own home is sacred? Very clearly, not any longer…

So enjoy Disney’s new streaming service as you pay for it with ever more personal information. Enjoy the convenience of telling Alexa to start the film. Just be aware that one day you may pay a very high price for that streaming service – especially if you ask Alexa to play an ‘unsuitable’ film…