Most people who try living with "Alexa," Amazon's voice-activated in-home Echo device, wind up loving her--or rather, it. But one group is decidedly underwhelmed: privacy advocates. Many of them think those of us who have these things in our homes, listening to everything we say 24 hours a day, are out of our minds.

Well, things are about to get worse from a privacy point of view. Alexa has access to your Amazon purchase history, music accounts, and your calendar if you let it, which I have. The Google Home device to launch in November will know everything about you that Google does which, if you use Gmail, is pretty much everything. Google has already displayed the uncanny power of this knowledge with its "cards" which alert you before you ask that a flight is delayed or a package is on the way.

Now Apple may be upping the privacy invasion ante with its planned in-home device which may not only listen to you all the time but watch you as well, according to new information published by CNET. The device would be "self-aware," whatever that means. (Are we talking HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey?) And it would use its always-on camera for facial recognition, detecting who is in the room so as to load that person's preferences for things such as music or lighting.

For some, that's a bridge too far. Gizmodo's Alex Cranz calls the idea "Goddamned terrifying" and says it's "the stuff of ol' George Orwell's nightmares." 

More to the point, the camera seems superfluous, at least to me. Any voice-activated device is going to come with a sensitive microphone and sophisticated voice recognition. Since voiceprints are as unique as fingerprints, you'd think Apple could create algorithms to identify each member of a household, and that that would be an easier project than adding a camera to every device. The voice option seems more accurate as well, since facial recognition will only work if you're actually facing toward the camera. And there certainly is an extra creepiness factor when everything you do is being watched as well as listened to.

Privacy defenders might take comfort in the fact that it's Apple--the company that fought the FBI's order to unlock an iPhone as part of the investigation into a mass shooting in San Bernadino--doing the watching. As a result, some believe that company is a more trustworthy steward of our personal information than Amazon or Google. And anyhow, government agencies that want to listen or watch what we're saying and doing in our homes already have the technology they need to do so.

The Echo is hugely popular. The coming Google Home device will almost certainly be too, and so will Apple's in-home assistant, whatever its name turns out to be. Privacy concerns won't stop that popularity. But perhaps we should all think for a moment about how we're putting these devices that keep tabs on us into our homes of our own free will, and paying good money to do so. It's a decision we may someday come to regret.

 

 

 

 

 

Published on: May 29, 2016
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