Internet of things. Smart devices. Smart services. We are increasingly living in a smart world. But in this world where WhatsApp is ubiquitous, devices like Google Home and Amazon Echo are fashionable and even refrigerators can connect to internet, we pay dearly for every smart service or device that we use. That price is called privacy.
The privacy risk that smart devices and services bring covers everything. And it happens so in two ways: Internet of things and through all the smart features and apps that you use on a phone.
First, take the internet of things. Tech giants today are continually looking at ways to connect to people. Gone are the days when all you needed was a phone and a laptop for your digital needs. Internet of Things is the name of the game and for a truly connected world, companies like Amazon and Google need to get inside not just your work space but your home, and all the way into your bedroom. That's the purpose of smart speakers like Amazon Echo and Google Home and smart cameras like the Echo Look and Google Clips.
In recent years, the idea of true privacy has been fading. We've heard not long ago about NSA's spying habits by tapping into smart TVs with webcams. Just this week, it was reported that Google's recently launched Home Mini is listening in on unsuspected users 24/7. There have been at least four reported cases so far of Minis snooping on owners, although these are seemingly due to bugs that Google has promised to fix.
According to a report by Android Police, the review unit of the Google Home Mini was found to be recording sounds constantly and transmitting them to Google. The Internet search giant acknowledged the issue and said it was issuing a fix via a software update, and that the reason behind the recording was an issue with the touch sensor on top of the device.
Now, tech companies working on smart speakers and smart cameras and other smart products generally assure that such devices are safe and do not infringe on the user's privacy. They give their word that these devices only listen in when prompted through particular keywords. But this recent issue with Google's Home Mini is just one among many popular instances where all is not safe.
Here's the problem. We gave rise to such devices. Companies want to serve users better, and in ways that make it easy to get work done without having to leave the house. The rise of artificial intelligence and AI-based assistants like Alexa, Siri and Google's own Assistant are designed to make it easier for users to simply speak to devices to look up stuff on the Internet, control a smart home, or simply play music when needed.
Take Google Clips for example. Clips was announced by Google at its recent hardware event, which is a smart tiny camera that can be hooked up anywhere and can snap pictures or moments the AI deems worth capturing. While it can be seen as Google's push in AI to create an easy way to capture moments, many have expressed concerns that it's just another way for Google to invade your privacy, so much so that it even got the attention of Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who recently tweeted his concerns over the idea behind Clips saying, "This doesn't even *seem* innocent".
Similarly, Amazon's Echo Look is a smart camera that gives fashion advices. Users can command it to take your picture, and the Echo Look will provide recommendations on what you should wear. Amazon's business is to sell things, and the Echo Look is one such way it is able to push its own line of clothing while making recommendations. But the real concern is just how much devices like Echo Look record your private life.
"A lot of consumers see the convenience and don't think about the long-term records that are being kept," says Peter Swire of Georgia Tech Scheller College of Business in a report by Wired earlier this year.
Last month, Amazon unveiled Echo Spot, a tiny, seemingly non-threatening alarm clock that can sit next to your bed. The Echo Spot also features a camera that lets you make video calls via the tiny screen. It all looks cute until one realises that the Echo Spot is basically a camera sitting in your bedroom, pointing presumably at your bed, with a microphone that always listens for keywords. Now, if one is okay with that, then we're pretty much knowingly risking privacy for the sake of convenience. The Echo Spot is all good until we start hearing reports of 24/7 recording. Thankfully, nothing so far.
On Wednesday Christopher Moore, a security researcher, found his OnePlus 2 was sending information on how he was using his device back to company servers. The data sent back not only included device information like IMEI number, MAC address, mobile network names and phone number, but also use patterns like locking and unlocking of the phone, and the apps being used.
OnePlus has explained that this data is used by the company for diagnostic purposes and that it helps in bug fixes. And that is apparently true, but the problem as that as soon as a company collects data, whether it is OnePlus or Apple, it cannot guarantee that this data will be forever safe.
Another important bit to note here is that OnePlus is hardly unique. All smartphone makers, as well as the app maker -- Uber, for example, was caught tracking users -- try to collect as much data as possible from their users.
Another example is WhatsApp. Rober Heaton, in his blog "Tracking friends and strangers using WhatsApp" shows how you can use the last seen at metric on the messaging app to track your friends activity. That might not be of a big concern for most of us. That is hardly personal information.
But Heaton goes on to explain, in a rather amusing way, how this data (which can be converted to sleep/wake data) can be collected by anyone and sold off to health insurers and credit agencies.
WhatsApp is running forever on your phone in the background. That is how it is able to sync for messages with the server and deliver it without you needing to open the app. Have internet connectivity, WhatsApp will work. So WhatsApp knows you are using your phone, and so does everyone who has your number, as the 'online' status appears below your name in the app. This can't be turned off.
Heaton shows how using a Chrome extension, a few line of code, can be deployed to suck out WhatsApp activity using the web.whatsapp.com interface. The extension can be left running to log user activity (when a user is online) over a period of time to basically map out when you use your phone or when you go to sleep in the night.
The fact that companies like Amazon, Google, Facebook that owns WhatsApp and Apple are investing heavily in AI and machine learning to bring out smart connected devices tells us quite a bit about consumer behaviour. Smart speakers have been widely successful with Amazon leading the way in the US, based on eMarketer's report, which also noted that buyers for voice-enabled speakers sees a 130 per cent jump this year. That's millions of smart speakers having been bought already.
There is no doubt that voice-enabled speakers and smart cameras are here to stay. So are services like WhatsApp and Uber. As Martin Utreras, vice president of forecasting at eMarketer says, "consumers are becoming increasingly comfortable with the technology, which is driving engagement." And as long as companies like Amazon and Google find newer ways for AI to do your work for you, smart devices will find buyers.
However, these recent cases of smart devices and apps snooping on consumers raises the issue again of just how safe we really are. Of how much of our personal information is really out there. On how far we can allow companies to gather details about us, invading our most private of spaces, before it gets really unsettling. Only time will tell.