Can you hear me now?
Big technology companies like Amazon, Apple and Google are introducing new products that offer consumers the opportunity to exchange personal information for access to convenient services — and we’re increasingly choosing the services, somewhat oblivious to the effects on our privacy. Tiny computers, controlled by our voices, have become a reality, but many of us are unaware of how we open ourselves up to the world when we use them.
Our devices are listening to us all the time — but do we care?
Go to the website for Amazon’s newest product, a virtual assistant, and you’ll read about many features: built-in speakers, seven microphones for capturing your voice, and a brain in the cloud that will get smarter over time as it listens to you.
But one thing is missing: privacy.
Amazon’s new Echo is advertised as “designed around your voice.” It’s always on, just waiting for you to speak a “wake word” (either “Alexa” or “Amazon”) to provide news, weather, broadcast radio, answer questions (using Wikipedia), set reminders and make shopping and to-do lists, and more.
All of this convenience means that Amazon will receive information on you, know what questions you asked and what your daily life is like, and probably use that information to better sell you things.
Echo’s “brain” runs on Amazon’s Web Services in the cloud, and it constantly is learning and adding functionality as it is used. Echo listens for the wake word using a voice recognition process that keeps data stored only on the device, according to the company, and when it does send information to the cloud, a ring at the top of the Echo is illuminated. You can turn the microphone off manually, and can delete audio Amazon has stored.
My Apple smartphone has a GPS chip that helps me find the route from South Bend to my grandson’s dorm at Purdue, but it also leaves a record of the restaurant where we ate dinner. My laptop has a camera that lets me Skype with my grandkids, and my iPhone’s camera lets me “Facetime” with my sister in California — all the while possibly spying on me. New technologies like Echo and hands-free versions of iPhone’s Siri assistant or Google are turning on microphones anytime, so they can respond to my every wish. If I want to use Siri, I can call it up by just saying, “Hey, Siri!” in the direction of my iPhone.
When Siri is idle and waiting for me to ask something, it isn’t sending anything to the Internet. But when I issue a request, such as “What is the phone number of Tony Sacco’s Pizza?” the request is sent to the Internet, but with safeguards that protect my identity. For example, when Siri is turned on, my iPhone creates random identifiers, so the servers don’t know it’s me making the request. I understand that Google’s voice assistant service is similar.
Jeremy Gillula, a staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, thinks consumers should be concerned even if their devices aren’t recording them all the time. He says that with enough data, Amazon can put together a lot of pieces of information that we may not realize that we’re giving them.
For example, if Amazon’s Echo recognizes different voice patterns, it could assess how many different people talk to it, therefore how many people probably live in your house. If you ask for a weather forecast or car rentals or airfare for a specific city, that would likely tell Amazon that you are planning to go there. This is quite the same as the tracking that happens when we browse the web, but it’s happening when we use our mobile devices, and I suspect many people are unaware of it.
Amazon says that Echo eventually will do more than answer questions and update your to-do lists. If Echo can eventually understand why you’re asking for something, it is likely to be able to guess what products you need before you say it. In other words, deliver ads!
Can you live with the tradeoffs of convenience for some amount of your privacy? This is the world we are rapidly going to live in. We can opt out, up to a point, but I personally am unwilling to be a “Luddite” and miss out on the richness technology can offer me. We can try to protect our privacy, but I don’t think we’ll be able to avoid using these devices indefinitely and continue to function as contributing members of a society that is increasingly interacting with the world online.