Walls have ears!

How we voluntarily sign away our privacy… 

“I am sorry, can you repeat that?”

I looked at my wife. I hadn’t asked her anything. She was watching “Love it or list it” on TV and not paying any attention to me. I wanted to ask her if she was hearing voices, but thought better of it. That wouldn’t sit well.

It took me a moment to realize that it was my Google Home Assistant that had quipped up – always eager to help. Except, I hadn’t asked for any assistance. Apparently somebody on TV had said something that sounded like “OK Google,” the trigger to wake up the assistant.  The assistant is always attentive; always listening – just in case you are talking to her – Holly, the voice behind Google Assistant.

My relationship with Holly is new – about a couple of months old. We are still getting used to each other. She calls me by my first name and recognizes when someone else is talking to her. Until recently, I had been with Siri – the intelligent personal assistant from Apple that came with my iPhone.

In some ways I feel that I am breaking up with Siri.

With Holly, Siri, Cortana, and Alexa, all vying for my attention, I feel like Lou Bega when he sings his version of Mambo No. 5A little bit of Monica in my life; A little bit of Erica by my side; A little bit of Rita is all I need; A little bit of Tina is what I see…

Seriously speaking, voice as an interface for controlling devices is here to stay.

The convenience is undisputable. Whether it is calling someone while driving a car, or setting the timer while you are cooking, the voice commands combined with the artificial intelligence inherent in some of these devices are transforming our homes into technology hubs.

But, that is really not my point. It is about privacy. The privacy that I have chosen to give up.

In a way, it is like a modern day version of Doctor Faustus – Christopher Marlow’s play. I am signing my privacy away to an AI version of Mephistopheles. All for the cool factor and the convenience of technology, with scant disregard for future implications.

Nearly five years ago, I wrote a post titled “Five facts about privacy that may catch you unaware” in which I focused on how companies and businesses infringe on our privacy for financial gain. And now, here I am voluntarily cozying up to my artificially intelligent assistant who, admittedly, records everything I say to it.

I am comforted by Google’s declared statement that only I have access to this info.

Sure. That works for me.

However, I worry that Google’s hands could be forced – by a Government, or a Judge, or for the right price.

I realize that the transcripts that I see from the Google Assistant are confined to the conversations that I started with “OK Google” or “Hey Google,” nothing else. But, by default the device has to listen to every word that gets said around the house to be able to respond to the right trigger words. There is no other way it can be an efficient assistant. It just politely stays out of the way until it is spoken to, like a fly on the wall.

Walls have ears!

Occasionally I worry that there is nothing preventing Google, Amazon, Apple, and others like them from expanding the ability to record conversations beyond what they currently do. After all, the devices are in the room and have the ability. Currently they choose not to, but they could. And when I am not at home, my smartphone steps in and tracks exactly where I am, and where I have been to ever since I set my “location” services to “on” in the device’s settings.

Once again, it is a choice that I have made, for the convenience of better search results, and finding my way around a city. I can turn it off, but I haven’t.

Privacy be damned!

After all, I have nothing to hide. Except, that time I played devil’s advocate and supported Donald Trump; and the time I strongly expressed my disillusionment with Trudeau Government’s policies that impact middle-class citizens; and that other time when I gave advice on using free movie streaming sites, and many such conversations that can come back to bite me, if taken out of context.

But then, if media reports are to be believed NSA and CSEC routinely monitor communications of individuals that they deem suspicious. If CSEC wanted to track my communications, they would not need assistance from Google Home to do that.

Governments have to do what they need to do to keep the country safe. So, I sort of condone it.

However, in the hands of a private company, such personal information could be far more dangerous. Imagine Google, Facebook, or Apple having complete data on your search history, what you talk about within your home, where you have been to, and potentially who else was with you!

You don’t have to imagine, they kind of already do.

Until now, the bigger players in the business appear to have behaved responsibly. And, consumers like you and I have bought in, and are vested. We like the convenience and the efficiency it brings to our daily lives. But, it only takes one corporate executive to think like J. Edgar Hoover and leverage the data and the power of knowledge of people’s personal lives and secrets.

For now, I am not worrying about it.

I am more concerned that one of these days my Google Assistant will turn around and tell me,

“Sorry, I have a head ache, ask me later.”

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Dax Nair

Dax is a marketer of cloud and security solutions with varied interests in technology, travel, food, racquet sports, and blogging.

4 thoughts on “Walls have ears!

    • October 19, 2017 at 4:42 PM

      Yes, there was a grand launch event. may be worth investing in…

  • October 14, 2017 at 1:48 PM

    Dax, nice article – and very humorous. I’d like to know more about what Holly does for you in exchange for you sharing your private thoughts with her. Seriously, what difference has Google Home made for you?

    • October 14, 2017 at 3:45 PM

      Thanks Andy. I like it and use it a lot.

      I also invested in a couple of Chrome Cast devices ($40) that work with the Google Home which help me leverage my home theatre system to play music and cast videos to my TVs.

      Most of my quick searches are now through Google Home, e.g. “What time is it in Delhi?; “what’s the weather like tomorrow?” “what time are the Raptors playing today?”…) I also use it for calling people who are in my Gmail directory. North American calls are free.I can set timers, wake up alarms, reminders.

      Over all, I am happy with it.


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