When our devices eavesdrop on us
Google Glass, the Moto X, and the Xbox One are just waiting for you to address them. They're always listening and waiting to tell you about the weather, or play whatever movie you'd like to watch, or scour the Web to answer any question you might think to ask. All you have to do is say the magic words.
We're constantly surrounded by microphones and cameras. Our smartphones, our tablets, our video game consoles, our laptops -- all of these have been shipping with the ability to watch and listen to you for some time. The difference is that these devices are now waiting for you to say "Okay Glass" or "Okay Google Now" or "Xbox" so they can stop passively listening to everything you say and start sending that data to massive data centers hundreds or thousands of miles away. The "record" -- or at least the "listen" -- button is now always-on.
This is meant to help us better interact with our devices. Conversational interfaces don't always work particularly well -- anyone who's tried to dictate a message to Siri, search the Web with voice commands, or control a device solely with their voice knows that. Luckily for the companies pushing voice control as the user interface of the future, the solution to that problem seems to be nothing more than convincing people to keep on talking.
Google has built new features, such as Voice Search and Google Now, into its products to make it easier for us to interact with the Web. "People communicate with each other by conversation, not by typing keywords -- and we’ve been hard at work to make Google understand and answer your questions more like people do," Google SVP Amit Singhal wrote on a company blog when those features were announced. The Moto X will learn its owner's voice and ignore all others. Many services use data culled from their users to improve their understanding of how we speak, what we're hoping to accomplish, and how they might be improved.
The rise of the conversational interface and the always-on "listen" mode is a prime example of how much we are willing to trade for the sake of convenience. Glass asks its wearers to sacrifice any semblance of societal norms for even the most basic of interactions, whether it's by encouraging users to mumble "Okay Glass" every time they want to do something or asking them to look towards the sky whenever they want to unlock the device. The Moto X will be waiting to hear "Okay Google Now" every moment it's turned on. The Xbox One asks its users to embrace a camera and microphone set that will eavesdrop on everything that happens in the most important room of the house by default.
And these aren't the only devices trying to passively collect all kinds of data about us and our surroundings. Many products and companies, from SmartThings and Zonoff to Belkin and Ninja Blocks, are trying to connect everyday objects to the Internet to make our lives a little easier.
We're willing to meet these machines on their own terms simply because of how useful they are or might be. The Internet of Things Consortium chairman and August founder Jason Johnson says that this principle applies to many technologies, whether you're talking about the Internet of Things, consumer applications, and products like the Xbox One or Glass. Once these devices have reached a point at which consumers no longer need to maintain them, he says, the "concerns over information sharing and what-have-you" go away.
They also might not know just how much they're sharing, as we've seen with the revelations of PRISM, XKEYSCORE, and other initiatives from the NSA that reportedly gather data and metadata from consumer technology companies. The Guardian illustrated just how much information is produced via simple services like email, Facebook, and Google's search tool. All kinds of other information are produced via other services and devices -- many without our knowledge.
"I think there are many, many areas like that. People don't understand what's happening but they like the benefits of technology," says SmartThings CEO Alex Hawkinson. "The companies that are out there on these systems and these technology platforms have to be mindful and protective of some core tenets of users' rights."
This sentiment was repeated during numerous calls and meetings in which I discussed concerns over how much information might be shared without users' knowledge, what the ramifications of an always-on and always-listening society might be, and how privacy and technology can co-exist. The wording is often different -- some discuss "best practices," others talked about how the market would punish any "bad players in the ecosystem" -- but they all come down to trust.
We're expected to trust that any of these companies, whether they're a startup offering an Internet of Things product or a large company like Google or Microsoft, won't do anything nefarious or untoward with our data. Trust that they're only listening so they can provide some kind of utility. Trust that the information they're collecting as a result won't be shared with government agencies or advertisers. Trust that they're only gathering and using the data that they need.
And if you don't want to share that data, or introduce a device that's always listening to you and waiting to send data back to its company's servers? That's too bad, because these companies need to gather that data to make many modern conveniences possible. The Moto X has to be always listening to make Google Now easier to access. August has to store some kind of information about who has access to our homes and when our doors were last opened to make a "smart" lock. Microsoft has to use the Kinect as a monitoring device to change the way we interact with our televisions.
Of course they're always listening. They wouldn't work otherwise. Now it's just up to us to decide if it's better to know what we're sharing through all of these devices and services or if we want to sacrifice our privacy to make our lives a little bit easier.
[Image courtesy x-ray delta one]