Siri, Alexa, Cortana and Google are all ears

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Published: September 2, 2019 1:28:05 AM

What is different about today's scenario is that tech companies are well within their confines to listen to your conversations. It's just that they are being obscure about the way they do it.

Siri, Alexa, Cortana, Google, apple, Artificial intelligence, amazon, microsoft, internet industry, amazon, voice recordingsWhat is different about today’s scenario is that tech companies are well within their confines to listen to your conversations.

Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal,” marks one of the famous lines from US President Nixon’s interviews, where Nixon implicated himself in the Watergate scandal. At the time it was well-known that the government was tapping phones of its opponents, Nixon’s confession gave it the much-needed propriety.

What is different about today’s scenario is that tech companies are well within their confines to listen to your conversations. It’s just that they are being obscure about the way they do it. The latest to join this is Cupertino giant Apple. A whistleblower in a Guardian report revealed that Apple was handing recordings of Siri conversations to contractors to listen and grade them. While the company has apologised, it is not the only one to do so. Facebook and Microsoft, earlier this month, after a similar expose, had revealed that they too were listening conversations. Whereas Google issued an apology last month after it was found doing the same. Amazon had also made a similar announcement in April this year.

Also read: Apple iPhone 11: Features, price leaked ahead of September launch

People, even those who put their lives on display on social media, are ruing the lack of privacy. But the issue, in this case, is not whether these companies were recording, rather how they were handling such recordings. Even that is not surprising. If Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Google are to learn from any data, how were they supposed to do it if it wasn’t graded? Artificial intelligence can only do so much, and it needs constant guidance from a human interface to learn and better itself. How can you have a smart AI, if you don’t feed it enough information to be “smart”. Customers, also, need to understand that companies can’t provide improved services, in the absence of any data. The rejoicement from the fact that Google knows what you read, watch, and where you go, comes from its amazing ability to track you. And, it won’t be able to do any of it, if it didn’t track you.

However, where these companies are in the wrong is how they have masked such issues in their privacy agreements. Although handing data over to the private contractors certainly doesn’t help, a larger issue is structuring of terms and conditions—these are the ones that are ignored when downloading an app or registering on a website. And, this malaise is not limited to calling or virtual assistant services but runs across the board. Increasingly, apps are asking for permissions that they don’t need or require, and a user has to willingly surrender to avoid the hassle of sifting through tons of words. More important, not all are aware of how to restrict some of these services.

Instead of being discreet about their plans, apps and websites need to ask consumers to opt for such services, on the pretext of giving them earnings for a share of advertisement sales. That way, they may even find willing participants. As for the rest, there should be an option to opt-out. I am sure some willing consumers may even pay not to be tracked by such services. While privacy advocates are right in admonishing the tech giants, the ire is also because of the ways that the internet industry has tried to extract data. If creators were more transparent of the usage of this data, things would have been much more straightforward. After, all when the tech companies do it, it’s completely legal.

ishaan.gera@expressindia.com

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