Privacy in a data-driven world

The progression of advanced technology has rapidly changed our lives, most relatably in recent years with the advent of mobile technologies so advanced that PC purchases have been in decline year-over-year for some time now.  Yes, there are far more positive impacts than negative, but that doesn’t mean the negative should be completely downplayed.  While there are plenty of debates over what tiny screens in our pockets have done to us socially as a species, there are also many far-less controversial consequences, like distracted driving.

Today, however, I’d like to talk about one of those controversial impacts, and that is the issue of privacy.  The world has become very data-driven, for example, by services like Instagram, which is a simple photo-sharing app at face value, but is a huge sales and marketing tool for influencers.  We can now buy $50 devices that sit in our homes and react to commands to buy things and turn our lights on, and cameras on our phones are so good that owning a point-and-shoot digital camera these days is practically…well, pointless (pun intended).

But these things come with tradeoffs, and as we move further and further into this data-driven ecosystem, people are starting to become concerned about how much is too much.  Is it okay to put an Amazon Echo, Google Home, or Apple HomePod in your home, knowing full well that those devices listen to you and have the potential to accidentally record and store much more data than intended?

"Hey wiretap, can cats eat pancakes?"
This image is, of course, ridiculous, untrue, and conflates compulsory government with voluntary enterprise, but it sure made the rounds on Facebook.

We know, almost certainly, that the Amazon Echo is not recording everything that a person says.  The way these devices work is by waiting to hear a specific waveform – that of your trigger word (“Alexa,” “Okay Google,” “Hey Siri,” etc) – at which point it records the sound that follows, sends it home for analysis to Amazon, Google, or Apple, then returns a result (this is also how assistants work on your phone).  They don’t record all the time (except when an error caused the Google Home Mini to do exactly that), or we’d know by sniffing the network traffic.

The reason I used the phrase “almost certainly” above is that there is always the possibility of the government forcing Amazon (or any of these companies) to record and store all listening data for a single user, but the instant a savvy user noticed increased network traffic and tracked it back to their voice assistant, it would be the biggest news story of the week.

People worry about these devices, and have every right to, because as consumers, we don’t completely understand them.  However, because of that very concern, worry is often misappropriated.  Take, for example, those that refuse to have a Google Home in their living room, but carry a Pixel 2 on their person at all times, so far as even keeping it on a night stand 3 feet away from their head while asleep.  This same concept applies to those that tape over the cameras on their laptops but would never do the same thing on their Galaxy S9.

It’s not a completely black and white issue, but if you are truly concerned about privacy, it would be foolish to take precautions like taping over your laptop camera and depriving yourself of modern home assistant technology, but not also take some kind of precaution with your phone – the most personal device currently imaginable (which, by the way, probably has at least 2 microphones and 2 cameras, minimum).

Consumers are almost always willing to trade a little privacy for convenience, which is why Google’s entire business model of knowing everything about you is working so well for them.  Conversely, there are still those that are concerned about these types of things going too far, and Apple has a model that is more friendly to those consumers.  Yet, either way, some privacy is sacrificed, or at least, the possibility of complete privacy is given up.  Even with a privacy-focused company like Apple, if you backup your phone data to iCloud, the government can subpoena that data from Apple, and they will provide it.  But does that mean you should never use a phone?

We should always be wary of what information we give to companies, because whether or not that info improves your experience with a product or service, it is almost certainly also being used to feed complex algorithms with ways to make more money from you.  On a personal level, I don’t particularly care if Google knows the area I work in so it can advertise relevant local eateries around noon, but some people take offense with this, even if the company is upfront about it.

Privacy is a difficult and delicate issue, but there is no blanket statement that those of us that understand the intricate details can provide to make the less tech-savvy make better decisions.  Unfortunately, I’d guess the lack of brevity tends to make people disinterested.  What we need to remember is that we shouldn’t oversell convenience without taking into account what our data is worth, but we also shouldn’t oversell the value of certain data that we can exchange for a greater amount of convenience.

If you’re looking for a takeaway, I’ll say this: being concerned about putting a Google Home in your bedroom is absolutely, completely valid.  Do your research, understand how it listens and responds, then make that choice, but also remember that your phone follows you around and your Google Home does not.  Mentally separating the two because your phone is more familiar is cognitive dissonance if you truly want to sacrifice convenience for security.


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