Sunday, December 01, 2019

101 Things #32 - Big Brother is Listening to You

When I was a teenager in the 1960s the world was an exciting place. We were promised dazzling advances in technology, usually to occur no later than the year 2000. That year seemed an immense distance away and therefore the promises appeared credible .Everyone would travel by personal jetpack. We would hang wafer thin televisions on the wall. We would open the pod bay doors in our spaceships by speaking to them (OK, 2001 for that one).

In the late 1990s voice recognition software became a commercial product. I tested out the leading product of the day, Dragon Dictate. This required at least fifteen minutes of dictation for it to recognise your voice and then, after considerable processing (and frequent crashes), one might begin dictating. The results were poor. So many errors were made you spent more time correcting them than if you had typed everything in from the start. I once spent an amazingly frustrating half hour teaching it a simple word - something like "hello" which every time I spoke would turn out something like "March". I would type in the word. I would say it several times, loud and clear and in standard English. I would start the dictation, say "hello" and watch in disbelief as it printed "March". I did not recommend that my firm buy it.

Now we have moved on apace. Computers can recognise what you are saying. They don't even need training. And a new breed of gadget, the voice assistant ("VA") is taking its place in our homes. Whether supplied by Google, Microsoft, Amazon or Apple (and there's bound to be more), it comes as a little box that sits quietly waiting to be woken up when you utter the trigger phrase and then your command is processed, whether it be to turn off the lights, play a music track or order groceries.

 This has been a much longer introduction than usual to one of these little pieces but I thought it useful to put in context the reason why I am adding to my slowly growing list of things not to do, 101 Things I Refuse To Do Before I Die, any notion that I should

Acquire a Voice Assistant .


The future, as seen from that rose-tinted 1960s viewpoint was benign. We would be in control, selecting the products we wished, preserving our privacy and rights. Sadly there was always going to be a great deal more to it than that.

VA technology is big technology. To process thousands, maybe millions of simultaneous voice commands, requires seriously big infrastructure and highly sophisticated software. The back end systems that can interpret what someone says, turn it into a set of instructions, send those to a warehouse and have a delivery made promptly are awesome feats of human ingenuity. It takes very large organisations to make it work and once you have a big organisation you have enormous problems of accountability. "Commercial reasons" can be cited for a blanket of secrecy about everything. The people at the top become remote from the vast majority of their employees and may lose control over the direction of research and the practical implementation of changes to technology and working practices.

Echo Dot
pic: Amazon

I have no interest in bringing one of these sinister little boxes into my home. It is a matter of trust. Some of the suppliers in this business may make money from supplying goods that are ordered from them, others must do it via advertising or some other means, but all the time whenever we speak we are giving them our data.

Data is valuable. Suppliers may not gloat openly about the willingness of the public to hand over personal details in the way that Mark Zuckerberg once did, speaking about his fellow students, when he set up Facebook, but they collect as much as they can all the same. We, the consumers, have virtually no idea what they are collecting, how they are processing it and, crucially, who they are selling it on to.

Consider also how a VA works. It must be on all the time, waiting to hear that trigger phrase. Therefore every sound it hears has to be processed. It is not the same as you switching it on and then speaking. We are assured that until the phrase is heard nothing untoward is done; we have no idea if this is true. Earlier this year Apple was embarrassed at revelations about what its support staff were doing with recordings they were supposed to listening to only for quality assurance purposes, as reported, for example, in The Guardian.

When you have one of these devices and you use for it everyday purposes, the supplier gets to know what times you get up and when you go to bed, what you like to eat, what you listen to, what you read, who your friends are, what your views are ... you can't help it, it will either hear these things directly through the commands you give or interpret them through your general pattern of behaviour.

I am not particularly paranoid about this as I realise that all this data is only really useful when aggregated with thousands of other bits of data, but, nonetheless, I see no reason why I should be handing any of it over when I don't know what they are doing with it and I don't believe the assurances issued by the corporate PR people a) because they wouldn't know what the tech guys are doing and b) because the Apple case shows that these companies are starting from a position of owning your data and only caring about misuse when they are found out.

So I will not be adding a VA to the gadgets in the Ramblings household. I shall switch my lights on and off the old fashioned way using the tried and tested one finger click technique. I shall read from my own library (printed and digital). I shall use TV, radio and (yes) the internet to garner news but not from one proprietary source. And Mrs Commuter and I will continue to shop where we can see and check what we are buying (and bring the goods back same day, not have to hang around waiting for a delivery). Thank you Siri, Alexa, Cortana and the rest of you smooth-tongued "female" robots, it's a case of don't call me 'cause I'm certainly not going to be calling you.

Update
I wrote this piece a while back and on the very day I reviewed it for publication came across a very detailed piece in The Guardian, written by an ex-Amazon techie, on precisely the points I discuss above. One of the most amusing, albeit unintentional, quotes is from an Amazon spokesperson who says
“Customer trust is at the centre of everything we do and we take customer privacy very seriously...."
No. Making money and keeping Jeff Bezos as the world's richest man is at the centre of everything Amazon does. When the Board meet, the first item on the agenda is not "How have we enhanced customer privacy this month?" It is "What are our earnings for the last quarter and how is the next quarter looking?".  Possibly the last item may concern privacy and trust but they'll probably be running late and will hold it over to the next meeting ....

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