One day over the Christmas holidays, three of the four MacDonalds were in separate rooms on the second level of our house, chatting and laughing about a topic I can’t even remember.
In the midst of the conversation, I heard a disembodied voice echo up the stairs. At first I thought I had misheard, that it must have been something on the living room television, but then… then there it was again; mysterious, mechanical, coming from somewhere. I shushed my husband and son so I could focus and figure out where it was coming from, and together we heard it, floating across the house: that voice. It belonged to my cell phone’s Siri, who, unbidden and uninvited, was asking how she could help.
To be clear, I have never used Siri on my phone. I didn’t even know it was enabled; creepy, right, creepy, creepy, creepy.
I really don’t want to start a new year feeling more paranoid than usual, but here’s the unfortunate truth: the devices we love, those apps we can’t get enough of, are spying on us, tracking our movements, noting our preferences, listening in on our conversations. They also have a life (and personality) of their own, apparently.
This day and age, privacy is a thing of the past. We are pinging and clicking our way to a Big Brother state, aren’t we? Maybe we’re already there, and don’t care much about what we’ve lost as long as Alexa obeys our commands and Google delivers search results.
I’m beginning to think my iPhone is stalking me, and as I’ve found out, adjusting the privacy settings can do little in the way of preventing that. As much as I hate to admit it though, I’ve passed the point of being able to give it up because I depend on it.
So do most others, and my Siri encounter is hardly isolated. I brought it up in several conversations, most of which have left me even more uneasy about technology than I was before, and a rash of recent news stories has confirmed that our behaviour, both on-line and offline, is being collected by marketers and tech companies. Most of us have long suspected this – who hasn’t been flashed with targeted ads after visiting a Web site? But we do little to modify or stop the intrusion.
My dad reports that his Google Home device has said, “Hello?” in response to his phone ringing. He also said it has started laughing with him during funny parts of a movie, and another friend reported the same. Mine has replied to several questions I didn’t ask it, sometimes out of the blue, sometimes hours after a discussion in that room has taken place. My son and I were talking before school about basketball and how well one of the Toronto Raptors had been playing, and that evening, the Google Home started chronicling that players’ stats. We weren’t even in the room when it started speaking.
In early December, two days after a Mississippi family installed their new Ring security system camera, a hacker harassed their 8-year-old. He told her he was Santa Claus and encouraged her to mess up her room and break her TV, saying, “You can do whatever you want right now.” (To make sure you understood what I just said, a complete stranger communicated with someone’s child through a security device, in the child’s bedroom. How’s that for off-putting?)
Just to make matters more concerning, a recent FBI report warned that hackers can take control of our smart TVs to do everything from showing kids inappropriate videos, to turning on the TV’s camera and mic to spy on your bedroom antics. This is where we are in the world.
Confirming my suspicions about that world was a report from The New York Times, whose analysis determined that companies can collect precise movement information through mobile app software and track the precise location of more than 12 million Americans with smartphones, using geographic coordinates available through a phone’s location services function. “If you could see the full extent of the information being transmitted and accessed,” the report stated, “you might never use your phone the same way again.”
But would we change our ways, really? I doubt it. It’s not like in 2020 we’re going to downgrade to not-smart devices. On the contrary, we’re buying more tech and ignoring the cautionary notices for the sake of shiny convenience.