Gordon Smith

Always on, Always Listening: Does Privacy Have No Place in the Future?

The downside to always being connected is, of course, always being connected. Is our push for innovation blurring the line between public and private? Or have we already crossed it?

 

Technology is about the melding of convenience and innovation: we want things easier, we want new things, but above all else, we don’t want to have to learn something new. Sure, a service that responds to your every whim sounds great, but whack on a convoluted controller or a nauseating interface and suddenly this all-you-can-eat service is more trouble than its worth.

Enter the advent of “always on” technology; always waiting, always listening for the magic word.

This is not a new concept by any means—Apple have been ramping up Siri’s abilities for years now—but as more and more aspects of our lives are robot-ified, so too are more and more of our possessions watching and waiting for our couch-based commands.

No more faffing about with a thousand pages of instructions, no more learning commands and shortcuts—like a great ship’s captain, your voice is all you need to set sail.

Though the idea of your phone constantly listening in on your conversations may sound unpleasant, it pales in comparison to the idea of your entire house keeping a (virtual) ear out at all times. Even more unpleasant is the mystery of just how long your out-loud musings are kept on record and just where that information can be used.

Indeed, Apple points out that their at-the-ready assistant does not actually record any information at all, until Siri herself (itself?) is activated. Once the virtual assistant is interfaced with, your device is given a random identifier allowing your command to be relayed to Apple HQ and back. No personal information can be divulged from that identifier and the moment a user turns off Siri that information is deleted entirely.

Perhaps the old adage is true: if you have done nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide. That perhaps brings us to our biggest question then: does the constant monitoring of your every action brand you as guilty until proven innocent?

Amazon’s Echo line of products is a slightly different ballgame. On the forefront of the new home-based technology push, Amazon’s product serves as a central hub of communication in your home, connecting to music streaming services, television sets, smart light bulbs (yes, that’s a thing), and more.

You can ask Alexa—Amazon’s own virtual assistant—to order you an Uber and update you on the weather, all without lifting a finger. Like Siri, Echo doesn’t actually record anything until the keyword is dropped. It isn’t until you start to converse with the system that issues start to appear.

Every command you make, no matter how bored you sound or how redundant it may seem, is kept on Amazon’s servers, even after the command has been processed and converted into a response. You have the option of listening back to, and indeed deleting, these snippets online under your account, but the clips remain on Amazon’s side indefinitely.

That’s right, Amazon has no policy on when—even if—they delete voice messages. There are theories, with dates ranging from as low as six months to a year, but those theories are little comfort in the face of a company known for tracking its shoppers’ every move online.

Maybe you’re not overly uncomfortable with that idea—indefinite holding be damned—as long as you, and only you, can access those voice memos, you’re not bothered.

But what if your private, confidential recordings could solve a murder? A case in Arkansas asks this, with local police issuing Amazon a warrant for the voice recordings of Echo owner James Andrew Bates accused of committing murder in November 2015.

You have the option of listening back to, and deleting, these snippets online under your account, but the clips remain on Amazon’s side indefinitely. That’s right, Amazon has no policy on when—even if—they delete voice messages.

Twice Amazon has declined to turn the voice-search queries over to police, though just what it is law enforcement are looking for remains unclear. The Echo unit itself has now been confiscated by officers, but it is assumed that very little information will actually be gleamed from a device that holds very little to no information locally.

Of course, if CSI has taught us anything, it’s that there’s always a convoluted, out-of-the-ordinary way to find evidence. It is unlikely that any voice recordings would be of use to investigators, even if Amazon were to hand them over. Rather, it is more likely the logs of who is in your home and when they are in certain rooms that will be of significance. After all, establishing where a suspect and their victim are is often of key importance in convicting someone of a crime.

Even still, the floodgates have been opened and the questions need to be asked: just how comfortable are you with the idea of constant connection? Maybe you’re like me who found the idea of Microsoft’s Xbox One’s video cameras being always online (even when the console is off) to be deeply troubling, but has no problem asking Siri to translate profanity.

Perhaps the idea of a constant paper trail makes your skin flare up. Or maybe the old adage is true: if you have done nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide. That perhaps brings us to our biggest question then: does the constant monitoring of your every action brand you as guilty until proven innocent?

Indeed, is it worth it? Is our push for innovation and advancement of human laziness worth the paranoia, the extra set of eyes over our shoulders, the ability for our every word to be played against us at any time?

Welcome to the 21st century’s philosophical conundrum.

We’re all players, all the time.

 

 

Gordon Smith

Journalist by day, cunning linguist by night. A passion for politics, hypnotically involved in human rights. An Australian born with a Japanese tongue, hoping to hold the bigwigs in government to account.

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