Tech Cynic: Eavesdroppers, hackers, guests and privacy

It's not just the manufacturers of home assistants that could be listening to you and your visitors

A couple of months ago I wrote about the fact that home assistants such as Alexa require the intervention of human workers at times to decipher user's instructions, improve recognition and basically fill in the gaps between perfect AI voice recognition and what we have today - which is a long way from perfection. For some people this is yet another reason, if one were needed, to avoid giving such devices house-room. Sharing one's personal data with electronics is one thing. Sharing it with random strangers in faraway countries is quite another.

With most consumer technology there's a balance to be struck between usefulness and privacy. Those people who require greater usefulness from their technology have to be willing to trade a lot of privacy. It shouldn't be this way but it is, largely because so many people are either ignorant of the potential cost (and the value of their personal data) or are aware of it but just don't care. With most modern technology the user is both the product and the revenue stream, which is why good privacy is never built into such devices by default. To use an old poker expression, if you can't see the patsy, it's you.

However, it's one thing to avoid the presence of always-on listening devices in one's own home. It's quite a different matter to avoid such privacy-intruding hardware when visiting other people's homes and offices. Increasingly, this is becoming a matter of politeness and etiquette. Privacy is something to consider not just for yourself but for the people who spend time in your environment - friends, family, work colleagues and other guests.

According to a recent BBC article, Google's hardware chief, Rick Osterloh, was asked whether a visitor to someone's home should be told that there is a listening device present, before they enter the home. His response, after a surprised pause for thought: "Yes."

There's an XKCD comic about this, as there is about most things technological. You can see it here. That it was drawn several years ago doesn't make it any less relevant today. It shows that this is a problem that's been brewing for some time. As more of these listening devices find their way into people's everyday lives, this is a consideration that's gaining importance. It could be a significant point of contention between those who value convenience over privacy and those whose priorities are the other way around.

There's yet another reason for wariness in the presence of listening gadgets. Researchers recently  found a way for third-party applications designed for Amazon's Alexa and Google's Home to potentially listen and record users' conversations without the users' knowledge. According to that article, security analyst Graham Cluley said, "having a device in your home which can listen to your conversations is not a good idea."

That, to those of us in the IT industry whose cynicism has been honed to perfection by years of watching big tech firms ride roughshod over users' privacy (and Cluley has been in the security business for decades), is a masterpiece of understatement. It's rather like saying that diving off a tall bridge head-first onto concrete isn't advisable. If you then go ahead and do it, you have to take responsibility for the consequences of your actions (or not, depending on the height of the bridge). To stretch the point still further, if one of the doors in your apartment inexplicably opened onto a pit full of sharpened spikes, you'd have a duty to tell any visitors to your home not to open that particular door, or at least mention its existence.

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