Siri will be able to perform an important new trick when Apple’s next iPhones come out.
The virtual assistant will always have an ear open, listening for users to summon it, ever ready to answer questions or to assist with certain tasks.
To summon Siri, an iPhone users will need only say Hey Siri. Before now, iPhone users had to press a button on the phone to activate Siri (except when the iPhone was plugged in to a power outlet and charging, in which case Siri could be activated by voice).
Apple is basically making “passive listening” technology a standard feature for Siri and the iPhone. It’s a feature that’s been incorporated into a few other gadgets in recent years and something which could make Siri very handy.
But this always-on, passive-listening technology has also raised alarms among privacy watchdogs.
There are a lot of unanswered questions around these “always listening” devices, such as how they can use the data and who they can share it with.
“[The licence agreements] have an extraordinarily wide latitude,” Bruce Schneier, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law, said to Business Insider. “And that’s a huge worry.”
Siri is hardly the first to boast this capability — Amazon touts its Echo as a combination of a speaker and virtual assistant that you can speak to naturally when you have a question.
You would either press a button or say a “wake word” to tell the speaker that it’s time to listen. Your requests are then beamed into the cloud to retrieve an answer. (You can see everything the Echo has recorded and delete commands, too.)
Motorola’s Moto X smartphone also allows you to access Google Now by simply saying a phrase without pressing any buttons on the phone. Samsung was in hot water earlier this year over its smart TVs, which pick up your speech so that you can command your television.
On any of these products, you can turn voice-recognition capabilities off at any time. But, even if you do agree to their terms and conditions, there’s still a reason to be concerned according to Marc Rotenberg, president and executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which filed a complaint to the Federal Trade Commissionregarding Samsung’s smart TVs in February.
“We don’t think it’s enough to bury somewhere in the terms and conditions of the product what basically becomes a type of consent, where the consumer says, ‘It’s ok to do this I understand the risk,'” Rotenberg said to Business Insider. “Even if the owner of the device consents to it, it’s likely the case that other people inside the home haven’t.”
These types of gadgets don’t really start paying attention unless you say a trigger phrase. And, you can erase any of your queries from Google and Amazon at any time.
According to Schneier, however, that’s still troubling because it means the gadgets are surveilling in order to detect those trigger phrases.
“It’s impossible to know if you say the word unless it listens,” he said. “What are they doing with the data they’re hearing, and under what rules do they allow the government to listen in?”
Schneier and Rotenberg spoke to Business Insider before the new iPhone and Siri features were announced on Wednesday, and were discussing the general privacy issues around passive-listening technology.
Rotenberg believes that there should be legislation in place that defines what companies can do with the data obtained from these always-listening gadgets.
“We’re not against the new technologies that provide different ways to get online,” Rotenberg said. “What we’re objecting to is this secretive monitoring of activity inside the home. And that’s essentially the problem with always-on devices. It’s a little too easy.”
Schneier thinks that these types of privacy concerns will always exist as personal technology evolves, and our gadgets have wider access to what we’re doing and saying.
“Surveillance is all about convenience,” he said. “[Your phone] knows where you are, when you wake up, when you go to sleep … it knows all of that stuff. And you’re happy with that because it rings when someone calls you.”
Disclosure: Jeff Bezos is an investor in Business Insider through hispersonal investment company Bezos Expeditions.
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