Over the summer, my friend showed me a feature on the iPhone that genuinely appalled me. Without my knowledge of explicit consent, my phone was keeping track of every bar, restaurant, building, and house I was going to—and it recorded precisely at time I entered and for how long I stayed. For those who don’t believe me, try it yourself by going to: Settings -> Privacy -> Location Services -> System Services -> Significant Locations.
On Thursday of this week for example, I arrived on campus at 11:40AM in time for my 12PM class. At 7:36PM, I left school to grab dinner. Thankfully, this feature can be turned off. Unfortunately, there are various others that cannot.
Other questionable features
Microphone is always on
Beginning approximately 3 years ago, saying trigger phrases such as “Hey Siri” to an iPhone and “Ok, Google” to an Android started to wake up the device. What is important to note here is that in order for the phone to do that, the microphone must be turned on at all times—meaning it’s always listening to you, what you’re doing and who you’re talking to. Additionally, Apple has admitted that everything you say or ask Siri is sent to the company for analysis and stored for at least two years. This may all be justified by the fact that companies simply want to improve the services of the intelligent assistant—running algorithms on the data allows them search for patterns and better cater to your personal interests.
But how would you feel if a third party was listening to all your voice commands? A few years back, an insider working at Walk N’ Talk Technologies whose job consisted of listening to an audio clip and rating how well it matched up to the text, stated something quite shocking. He claimed that he would analyze audio clips on a daily basis, which ranged from little kids asking “Hey Siri, do you like me?” to adults asking their Galaxy notes to perform impossible and inappropriate tasks. The thought of a human having access to every question I’ve asked Siri isn’t such a pleasant one. It is no wonder Microsoft employees are prohibited from using Siri in the office—they are afraid that Apple will pick up on sensitive information from the voice recording and use it to their advantage.
Camera is always on
As we’ve discussed in class, the privacy concerns surrounding the iPhone X’s ability to scan a face to unlock the phone is quite the burning topic. One thing we did not discuss however, was the fact that the iPhone X’s sensors and cameras always need to be activated and scanning for faces in order for the Face ID to function. This means that big tech companies can now gather highly sensitive information without the consumer’s knowledge. Gender, ethnicity, age are the obvious ones. The more sophisticated ones include wealth (conditions of your house, your furniture and your apparel), type of friends, emotional state, and even sexual orientation and intelligence, according to a recent research report. Imagine what the tech giants could do with this kind of data, if they wanted to.
What should we make of all this?
I am not one to get easily paranoid about technological advancements, and as far as I can tell, the primary objective of rolling out new features like these is not surveillance and for keeping track of our every move. And as Alexandra neatly laid out for us in both her presentation and follow up blog post, the new features introduced by Apple will benefit individuals and businesses alike in an infinite number of ways. But while the initial intentions of the “Frightful Five” may really be to maximize the convenience of the customer experience, that may not even matter.
Let’s suppose for a moment that the tech giants operate with the utmost regard to ethics and morality, and don’t do anything with the information available to violate our privacy. Unfortunately, this information can still fall into the wrong hands with all the wrong intentions. As demonstrated in my presentation about North Korea’s abuse of social media and technology and by the current headlines about governments tapping into new digital features, our information can be used by external parties to cause real damage to both individuals and to the society at large. Therefore, I believe there is an increased need to be fully aware of the risks of trading off privacy with convenience.
If we use our phones without adjusting any default settings, our devices know our weekly schedules down to the minute, what our voices sound like, what we’re interested in, which friends we spend the most time with, what we look like, how we are feeling, and much more. The combination of all such information paints a pretty detailed picture of who we are—and as a result, many important questions have been raised. For example, can law enforcement force a criminal to open up your phone with your fingerprint? According to the 5th Amendment, citizens have a right against self-incrimination, but some courts have ruled that if law enforcement has a warrant, they can require you to do so. With the introduction of Face ID and other features, we will see how legislation will adjust and evolve, and to what extent companies and governments will be legally allowed to leverage such information.
A couple months back, I watched a Netflix original movie called “The Circle,” starring Emma Watson and Tom Hanks. As terrible as the movie was, there was one interesting scene, where Emma Watson was able to find a murderer who had been in hiding through social media and the phones of users in less than 10 minutes. I thought this would be a good extreme example of what companies could accomplish with all the data they have collected. I couldn’t find that exact scene, but here’s another clip from the movie where Watson uses the same method to track down Mercer, a friend who had been in hiding. The chase begins at minute 1:10. Also, if you haven’t watched the movie and plan on doing so, SPOILER ALERT.