I’m a big fan of the web comic, XKCD, though I admittedly don’t understand roughly 20% of the jokes. But if you’re a sciencey, nerdy nerd like me, it’s nice to laugh at jokes about intellectual concepts. But when this cartoon came across the feed the other day, I was a little bit sad. As most of you already know, I’m a big fan of always-listening devices like Google Home and Alexa. To me, that represents the future of personal computing. So, anything that disparages the idea grinds my gears just a little bit.
The cartoon is funny. I laughed when I read it, because it’s a ridiculous concept. But basically, the cautionary tale here is to make sure you’re never in a house with a microphone that could be recording your every word. Just a few weeks ago, I joked about why the government should go to the trouble of bugging your house when people are installing them voluntarily. But the thing is, it was a joke.
We have the technology
Let’s go ahead and lay out all the cards right now, so we can all be on the same page. Google Home and the Amazon Echo devices (most of them) do have always-listening microphones. Your phone can also have an always-listening microphone if you activate them. Voice control is here, and there is only one way it can work – to be always listening. If a device is not listening for your voice, your voice cannot control it. If you need to touch the device, it defeats the purpose of voice control.
But the data that is collected with those always-listening microphones are not going to be used to your disadvantage. The data collected is meant to help you get things done – hence the name assistants. Is it possible that Amazon or Google could collect data about you with these devices? From a strictly technical perspective, yes it is. But the bigger question that needs to be asked is – will they bother?
Just because you can…
And that’s the crux of these arguments. Sure, a microphone that you have in your home could be used to monitor that home. The capability is there. But so could the microphone that is in your pocket every day. It might require a few extra steps down that morally ambiguous road, but those steps are small in the grand scheme of things. There is a certain level of trust that we as a society need to have to advance this technology, and web comics like this XKCD panel aren’t helping.
Am I advocating that we give up all of our rights and privacy to “the man” or “the government” or anyone else? Absolutely not. But it’s the point at which those rights are exercised that needs observation. I am suggesting that we need to ensure our rights to privacy are executed by the agency that is providing those services. It’s very important that we ensure that our daily lives are not being used as currency in some larger business game.
But we don’t need to completely cut ourselves off in order to make that happen. We simply need to ensure that safeguards are put into place to protect that privacy to a reasonable degree. Put another way – if you’re afraid your individual privacy will be violated by allowing Alexa into your kitchen, you may as well stop using checks and credit cards and stick to cash. Think I’m crazy? Banks especially are in a similar position to violate our trust as Google and Amazon are. My family hands over every cent in our possession to US Bank every two weeks with the trust that we can use that money where and when we need it. It’s a social contract we put in place to allow us more freedom to spend currency. There are also legal obligations that give us recourse should we find that trust violated. Sound familiar?
Of course this isn’t a 1:1 comparison, in fact it’s admittedly a stretch, but the social contract aspect of it is similar. Just as we trust banks to not keep our money, and not give it to other people, so too should we trust Amazon and Google to not share our information with others or to otherwise use it inappropriately. There is a reason we have to agree to “terms and conditions” most of which no one reads. No one reads them for banks either. It’s to ensure that all parties know just what is and what is not allowed with our data. If we don’t read them, and understand them, that’s on us.
We’re no angels
I’m not saying Google and Amazon are angels here to keep us safe from all harm. But what I am say is we need to trust these companies to keep our information safe. It’s true that breeches may happen. It’s a risk, but technology is a delicate balance between risk, reward, security, and convenience. If you want to shut yourself away from the world so you can keep the fact that you like Disney princesses from Alexa, that’s your choice. I, on the other hand, embrace what technology has to offer, and I trust that Google and Amazon will keep my privacy safe, lest the world know about my extensive collection of adult-sized Disney dresses.
Wait. Forget that last part.