OF COURSE Google Home Is Spying On You

Published in Online Spin, October 13th, 2017.

It was a shocking headline: “Google Home Mini spied on user 'thousands of times a day,' sent recordings to Google.”
But not really that shocking. Home, Echo, Siri… they all have a job to do: wait until you say their name, and then deliver whatever you ask.

But here’s the catch: In order to hear you saying their name, they have to listen. All. The. Time.

This listening is why, earlier this year, Amazon was subpoenaed by prosecutors in an Arkansas murder case: what better witness than a continually recording robot?

The defendant willingly handed over his data, so the question of whether Amazon could have been forced to do so wasn’t resolved. But the legal challenges will continue.

Google, Amazon and Apple don’t just track us using voice-activated personal assistants. They track us through every one of their products -- and they’re not the only ones doing it. Facebook doesn’t just know what you click on and who your friends are. They know where you log in from, whether you have a secret crush on someone, whether you’re depressed.

Instagram, Yelp, Waze, YouTube, SnapChat… their entire business model is predicated on gathering your data and analyzing it to see what can be sold to you.

And it’s not just the companies themselves spying on you. After ten likes on Facebook, third parties like Cambridge Analytica know you better than your work colleagues. After 150 likes, better than your family. After 300, better than your spouse.

It’s been said that if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product: your likes and dislikes, your motives and desires, your jealousies and insecurities, all available for purchase, by retail companies, political parties and foreign governments.

The more data they have, the more valuable it becomes, which is why their job is not to provide you with value, it’s to keep you on their sites. Social media is in the business of selling your attention, not connecting you with friends. Just as its restaurants enable McDonald’s real estate business, your connection with friends is only valuable to Facebook to the degree it keeps you coming back for more.

Perhaps much too long after the horse has left the barn, a small but growing group of voices is working to help us break free of the addiction. People like ex-Facebookers Justin Rosenstein and Leah Pearlman and ex-Googler Tristan Harris are working to pressure social media companies to be more respectful of their users’ time.

But this is like saying that a scorpion should not sting. It’s in their nature. This is what they do. It’s how they stay alive.

Even companies that aren’t based on an advertising model have a vested interest in spying on you.

Your Tesla knows where you drive. Spotify knows what you listen to. Netflix knows what you watch.

The smart grid knows how much power you use. Your Fitbit knows whether you clocked your 10,000 steps today -- and maybe whether you’ve committed murder. Even your vibrator is keeping track. Every connected device is continually gathering information on you -- and every device is becoming connected.

Companies have been spying on us forever. That’s what loyalty programs are about. That’s what mailing lists are for. We are being stalked, and our digitally connected lives make that ever easier.

Of course corporations are spying on you. You’d be naïve to think they’re not. But are you going to stop using their products? After all, they’re awfully convenient…

Kaila Colbin