Alexa, Playback My Conversation Because I Know You’re Listening to Me

Trump Campaign Ad Sponsored on Facebook. Photo: by the author

No cameras, no lights and definitely no “action.” No producers needed for this entertainment. You’re being listened to right now. You’ve only got a few viewers. Many wish they could explain the absurdity that occurs within the walls of their own home. Well if Siri is sitting in your pocket… you can. Communication major, Lauren Johnson, knows this well now. As she is waiting on her pasta at a restaurant in Fitzrovia, she scrolls through her social media. Lauren does not involve herself in politics. She then scrolls past an ad on Facebook that asks her to support the Trump campaign. Didn’t she just call her dad from the U.S. hours prior where he ranted to her about the fast approaching 2020 election? Must be a weird coincidence huh? She scrolls.

I was also waiting on my Cacio e pepe, when I saw Lauren doing the same thing I was. Not paying attention to the world around me, and definitely not looking up from my little screen. I decided to ask her if she had ever had any weird incidents where something she talked about in real life “suddenly” showed up on one of her apps a short amount of time later. She then shared her Trump ad coincidence with me, “There’s nothing I am going to do to stop it, so I have to be okay with it.” We all share similar stories where we see our smartphones coincidently bringing up real life conversations on other forms of media. Yet we just blame it on the universe and move on.

So, what’s the big deal? Most people like Lauren don’t even realize there is a mic on them at all times when it comes to their smartphones and smart speakers. Well I hate to burst your bubble and enter you into the 24-hour watch paranoia, but technology journalists have already driven this theory to a head in recent findings. “If Siri chirps as you’re having sex or Cortana accidentally triggers while you’re searching for porn, there’s a chance the audio clip will be sent to human contract workers for review. It doesn’t matter if you didn’t know this, because ignorance is consent,” says Sidney Fussell, writer for The Atlantic. Fussell is referring to the voice recognition feature in our AI products. These devices have the ability to collect key words from our speech and use that data to assist third party applications in targeting us through advertisements. Facebook, Google and Amazon have all stated they protect their customers and our privacy. However, everyone seemingly shares an incident where a conversation has been picked apart and used in a marketing ploy.

So, before there was Siri, or Alexa, or Cortana, there was Audrey. Oh, you don’t speak to Audrey angrily every day when she can’t make out what you say? Me either. Audrey was the first voice recognition technology built by Bell Laboratories in 1952, and she could only understand numbers. Now almost 7 decades later, 3.3 billion of the world’s population are smartphone users, according to Statista. The UK makes up 46 million users, which means 70% of its population uses a smartphone. The smart assistant was not implemented in smartphones until Google Voice Search for the iPhone and Android in 2008 and Apple’s Siri for the iPhone 4S in 2011. In the UK, 10% of smart speaker owners regularly talk with their assistant according to Reuters Digital News Report. Now reports by the AI Research Company Emerj predict the speech technology will grow to become involved with everything from our phones to refrigerators and cars. They claim that the speech recognition market will be worth $18 billion by 2023.

Due to this huge rise in voice recognition technology that doesn’t seem to have an end in sight, US and UK researchers at Northeastern University and Imperial College London put the theory to the test. They wanted to know if our smart speakers really record our audio and stream it to their providers. They used the Echo Spot and generated voice commands to collect its network traffic. They also held experiments where they captured traffic of the device without triggering the virtual assistant with the usual “Hey Alexa.”

The study concluded that several non-first party destinations like Google did receive info from the IoT devices. This gives them access to profile consumers like which product is in the household, and how people are using it. However, it was also found that the audio devices exposed very little personal information in plaintext.

This type of news can be truly detrimental to users who feel taken advantage of when they see proof of their call to home with dad plastered on their Facebook homepage. However, there are valid reasons for companies listening to you, and according to Vox it is only less than 1% of conversations. Google and Apple say they hire teams to listen to help correct the products’ mistakes, and consumers are kept completely anonymous. This still doesn’t make the everyday user feel great, but these large corporations and third-party data companies are not listening in on your every word. They don’t need to.

Our phones already have so much personal information about us like our friends, our web-browsing history and our location. Antonio Garcia Martinez, Facebook’s former advertising targeting boss, supports this claim that Facebook does not need the voice recognition technology to target you. For example, if you get an ad for the Manchester United game coming up this weekend, it’s not because you were talking to friends about it the other day and Siri was unintentionally triggered during that conversation. It’s likely because you live in Manchester, searched for tickets or recently purchased a Da Gea jersey. Martinez says, “FB really isn’t the agent here, the advertiser is. If anyone should be demonstrating transparency it’s them.” Though companies like Facebook are catching the heat for this privacy invasion, it is a formula of different factors and now no one knows who to trust.

Journalists are firing at big companies and persuading their readers one way. Yet, these big companies remain discreet about how this algorithm actually works, and if it actually exists. Lauren shares the struggle of many that feel intimidated and unclear about how this all really happens, “It’s a privacy issue but I’m not doing anything wrong.” We’ll likely never know. Companies keep it hush hush because an admittance to how true or false these theories are could cause an uprising amongst consumers. But really how important is privacy to consumers? This information is out there, yet we still update our smartphones the second a new phone releases, or buy into the latest speaker. Maybe we all need to become entertaining 24/7 on the slim chance a techy team member is listening in?