Aldous Huxley, Google Home and Uber

Google Home, Uber and a variety of other services (FitBit, Roomba, Siri etc) obsessively track my everyday actions. Yet I continue to use them. Why?

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (1931)

Let me start by saying that Uber and Google Home, the two applications that I use the most, are immensely convenient. They automate several tasks that make my life extremely easy and right now, it seems like without them, I would not be able to get through my weekly chores. Let me also say that I am aware that that is exactly the Uber and Google plan — make users so dependent on you/your product, that they agree to gently let you into their lives. You turn the heat up slowly, so that before you know it, users are trading privacy for convenience and are seemingly okay with it.

I am aware of the bigger plan, yet I use them. Why?

Let us start by looking at what information Uber and Google Home are tracking. While I focus on Uber and Google Home for the purposes of this post, the discussion and implications are applicable to a much wider range of tech services/apps that obsessively track user data.

  1. What is Uber tracking? And how?
In 2016, Uber tracked user location even when they were not using the application.

I have been using Uber for nearly 4 years now, and I use Uber every single day.
Last year, in November 2016, Uber released an app update that prompted users to allow Uber to track their location even when not using the application. Uber would continue to track your location 5 minutes after you got off your Uber ride, and they said that they used the data to “to improve pickups, drop-offs, customer service and to enhance safety."

As a user could had an alternative — which was that you do not share your location with the app at all. However, this was painful. Not sharing your location at all meant having to type out your current location every time they hailed a ride. Mildly annoying, but still inconvenient, given the handy geolocation sensors build into smartphones. As a lazy millennial (that Uber expects me to be) I (and several others) allowed Uber to track my location 5 minutes.

As of last month, Uber changed its policy and decided to remove the controversial feature. But you have a years worth of data on what I do 5 minutes after I shut the app and that is frankly .. disconcerting, to say the least.

In addition to this, Uber has been involved (multiple times) with other controversies regarding tracking user behaviour. Last year, the company was found using software to identify iPhones even after their owners deleted the Uber app. That technique, known as fingerprinting, isn’t uncommon — and shouldn’t be interpreted as tracking your every move. But Uber’s implementation crossed a line with Apple, in particular because it tried to hide what it was doing.

Still using Uber tho.

2. Google Home

Google Home’s smart device has an ‘always listening’ microhphone

Google Home is Google’s smart speaker device that allows its users to speak voice commands to interact with a range of services through Google’s intelligent personal assistant. A large number of services, both in-house and third-party, are integrated, allowing users to listen to music, look at videos or photos, or receive news updates entirely by voice. I use google to store items on my shopping list (linked to my Google Tasks account), to listen to music (linked to my Pandora and Spotify playlists), to listen to news in the morning, to switch off the lights in my living room, and to check for the weather before I step out of the house.

What information is Google Home tracking?

Having an ‘always listening’ microphone in the middle of my living room is creepy. Which is why I did my research on ‘always listening microphones’ before signing up for a Google Home.

Now, Google Home (and Alexa if you own one) are always listening to your in order to listen to specific activation phrases, like “Alexa” or “OK Google. This means that their microphones are listening to you even when you’re not requesting things from Alexa or Google, which is why these are called always listening microphones. However (and this is what makes me relatively comfortable with the technology) those ambient conversations — the things you say before “Alexa” or “OK Google” — aren’t stored or sent over a network. If the activation phrase is not heard, the audio snippet stays local on the device and is discarded.

Further, as this Wired article clarifies it is extremely difficult for hackers to gain access to your google home and listen in on your conversations:

“Nothing is impossible, but Amazon and Google both have security measures that prevent snoops from wiretapping your home. The audio zipping from your home to Amazon and Google’s data centres is encrypted, so even if your home network is compromised, it’s unlikely that the gadgets can be used as listening devices. A bigger risk is someone getting hold of your Amazon or Google password and seeing a log of your interactions online.”

Lets be honest, google has been recording my web activity for years, so they probably know me better than my parents know me anyway. However, having a web-connected microphone listening to every conversation I have with my partner, friends, parents does take privacy concerns to another level.

Why am I comfortable being tracked by Uber and Google Home (and everyone else)?

From @ http://www.lukejepsen.com/

To be honest, I am not. But Google and Uber have made life so much easier for me, that I have convinced myself that this information won’t be revealed to anyone or used for anything other than advertising and responsiveness. Aldous Huxley in a Brave New World said, ‘A really efficient totalitarian state would be one in which the all-powerful executive of political bosses and their army of managers control a population of slaves who do not have to be coerced, because they love their servitude.’

Even as a well-educated (reasonably skeptical) graduate school student it seems like I haven’t thought through the implications of letting Google/Uber into my life as much as I should have, because — to Huxley’s point, Google and Uber have made me love my servitude.

Is the convenience offered by these products worth the loss of privacy?

For now, the answer seems to be yes.

I didn’t do as much research as I should have before signing onto these devices. I don’t think people fully process what happens when you’re using smart devices to query some external entity. Even scarier, is that people don’t care even if they do find out. even with all the realities I’ve thrown out in this article, my Google Home isn’t going anywhere soon.

Huxley’s Brave New World centres on a time when scientific advancement is valued in a world fuelled by wilful ignorance and collective complacency. Guilty as charged.