My Android phones have been listening to me for years. I have no doubt about this. When I started talking about something absurd late last year – “can you use hand lotion to condition a leather chair” – and then decided to look it up on my phone, the first suggestion google makes upon entering “Can you use” was “Can you use hand lotion to condition leather products”. And that’s just one example.
People call me paranoid for saying this, but I’m not. I just understand (or at least pretend I understand) what’s going on inside our connected devices.
Speech Recognition in the Cloud
If you have an Android phone with the Google+ Launcher applied, try this: Turn it on and just say “OK, Google”. This automatically opens the voice to text search box where you can talk to the device and get it to do things like a search or send an email or whatever. I’m sure the Fruit Company phone can do the same thing. And the one from Macrohard. It’s amazingly unamazing in a world where rapid technological advancement has made us jaded.
What’s actually happening here is really quite amazing: The phone is constantly listening for specific voice queues, and when they are triggered it starts doing stuff. It gets even more impressive when you start dictating. You can actually see the phone guessing and correcting itself in real time as it does to make sure it gets everything exactly right. And watching this happen it’s clear there is a lot of contextual semantic processing going on out there in the cloud.
What we have here is the dream of speech recognition come true in the cloud. And now that we have it people are (and should be?) terrified.
Your Samsung TV is Eavesdropping on Your Private Conversations
Earlier this week the tech media and everyone else suddenly got very interested in connected devices and their listening capabilities. In the Terms of Service for Samsung’s Smart TVs a line was discovered that said:
“Please be aware that if your spoken words include personal or other sensitive information, that information will be among the data captured and transmitted to a third party”
The reporting was quickly followed by a statement from Samsung saying:
“If a consumer consents and uses the voice recognition feature, voice data is provided to a third party during a requested voice command search. At that time, the voice data is sent to a server, which searches for the requested content then returns the desired content to the TV”
George Orwell fans with better memories than me immediately caught on to the striking similarities from the book 1984:
Right: 1984 pic.twitter.com/osywjYKV3W
— Parker Higgins (@xor) February 8, 2015
And the world burned for days.
The Clash of Dreams and Reality
What we have here is a clash of dreams and reality. In our dreams we want to be able to talk to our devices and have them do our bidding. In Star Trek they had the Universal Translator. You can now get much the same feature by downloading the Google Translate app on your smartphone. Try it. It’s absolutely mind blowing. But for this technology to work we can’t just rely on our phones or computers or TVs. Language is complex and can’t be simplified to algorithms that can run on our local devices. For this technology to work we need the Cloud. And that means literally recording and sending your conversations over the web to a server that then parses the data, gleans the meaning of it, and acts according to your instructions.
In short, when you talk to your device your device needs to actually understand what you are saying. Which is why your Samsung Smart TV and your cell phone and probably your computer and any other connected device in your house is in fact listening to you all the time
The Question Isn’t If You are Being Recorded, But Who Listens
Most people will find this revelation rather unsettling, but the reality is this is not new. It’s been going on for years. And it’s a direct response to what we as consumers have been asking for.
The bigger question is who’s listening. The device and service companies are pretty much unanimous in saying they are not recording and not listening. The recordings are purely for the computers. And in a way it is probably believable (unless you are talking about that website that wants to sell your face on a book. They are totally listening). I don’t actually fear the companies (much), but I do question their encryption algorithms.
Post-Snowden we have confirmation of what many of us have known all along: If you put it on the Internet the US intelligence system will be listening in. So does this mean that someone is sitting in a bunker somewhere in the US (or elsewhere) listening to our conversations while we watch TV, or eat dinner, or chat with our phones within reach? Not unlikely.
Somewhere George Orwell is shaking his head in shame while dictating his next novel through his phone.