In a Google+ post, I recently noted that the latest iteration of the G+ native app for Android automatically brings up a display with a live view of the device’s camera without user intervention, every time that a user goes to make a status update. As you can imagine, this immediately caught my attention.
The issue here is that there is a very real potential for abuse, as it seems that Google could easily enable recording on these devices. This would be especially problematic on a device like my 2012 Nexus 7, as there is no visual indicator that the camera is active.
After posting my misgivings about the potential security implications of this change, several users responded in defense of Google and the new feature. In an interesting twist, I’ve found most of the people who tend to vigorously defend Google in matters like this are often the most vocal opponents of similar behaviors by Microsoft. Let’s explore that a little.
How much outrage, anger and press did we see over the idea that the Xbox One required Kinect and might be recording you persistently? Do a Google Search, it is one of the auto-suggest top hits. Type in “Xbox Kinect” and Google helpfully suggests that privacy is the most frequent next word searched. On the same note, a story from The Verge highlights some of the early concerns related to the Xbox One, Kinect and privacy.
This article warns:
Even when the console’s turned off, users can simply say “Xbox On” to power up — which means the new Kinect will be listening to you in your living room at all times.
Furthermore, the article ominously suggests:
When the first iteration of Kinect headed to the market in 2010, Microsoft’s Dennis Durken suggested to investors that the peripheral might pass data to advertisers about how you look, play, and speak. ‘We can cater what content gets presented to you based on who you are,’ he said, sparking privacy concerns.
Of course, people raising flags about Microsoft aren’t alone. We’ve also seen the alarm sounded on security issues related to Apple products. But Google has actually admitted their intention to record audio to help better target advertising. This is exactly the same kind of technology Microsoft suggested could be harnessed with Kinect. It is an extension of the opt-in technology that makes Google Now so powerful. The problem arises when persistently aware devices and apps become prevalent, like the Moto X.
The problem arises when persistently aware devices and apps become prevalent
These devices are basically remote drones that are always listening and running algorithms like those found in Shazam and Soundhound. Even Google Now has added audio recognition directly into the audio search capabilities – simply start a Google Now search while listening to music and then tap the blue icon of a note that appears, and Google will helpfully tell you the name of the song you are listening to and provide links to purchase it.
The problem is basically the same I countered critics with about Google WiFi password cloud harvesting… I mean “automatic backup,” feature: Many users are not likely to know, understand, or realize the severity of what it means to allow Google — or Microsoft, or Apple, for that matter — to engage in this behavior. When features are enabled by default without requiring the user to opt-in, many will unknowingly consent to an invasive feature they might otherwise object to.
Others may be exposed to the behavior of these devices without implicitly being able to opt-in or out. When a Moto X is persistently listening at all times – sending those recordings back to Google’s Cloud for analysis, imagine the potential for abuse by a government or a spying corporation that might compromise Google’s network. An unlikely conspiracy theory? I wouldn’t be so quick there. It isn’t your device you have to worry about, it is the person next to you and their device.
imagine the potential for abuse by a government or a spying corporation that might compromise Google’s network
As an IT policy, I’m not sure I want devices in my offices that are always listening and analyzing what is heard, or for that matter, seen. Likewise, politicians and businessman would be very nervous about the potential for abuse presented by devices with features like these. If you think the potential for unintentional abuse is overstated, it has already been reported that the implementation of this kind of listening technology in Chrome can already be exploited for malicious purposes.
In Google+ I received this response to my concern: “and yet you continue to use their products”. Yet again, I am reminded how frequently people are upset at Microsoft because of similar behaviors while lamenting, “the problem is that you don’t really have any choice.” I don’t understand how that is any different with Google at this point in their role in so much of the population’s daily life.
An easy solution: make consumers aware, and allow us to opt-in
The solution as always, is easy. Google could provide granular privacy control that requires users to acknowledge and opt-in to these features which are consistently controversial. Some who responded to my original post suggested, “it is a convenience, I am not going to limit my experience over conspiracy!” I think that is a fair response and if you want to opt-in for those kind of conveniences and reap the benefits as an informed user, I think that is fine.
Google could provide granular privacy control that requires users to acknowledge and opt-in to these features which are consistently controversial
The point is that companies should do a better job of telling users about these potentially invasive features, and should allow us to make an informed choice whether or not we wish to use these features. Many bring smartphones into places where they would never bring another sentient person capable of listening, watching, recognizing and analyzing their behavior. I won’t go into any crass details, as I’m sure you can imagine a Moto X laying on a night stand, rolling its one electric eye, wishing that it was somewhere else.
This example illustrates that, increasingly, we must be aware that our digital devices are passing a threshold. They’re less like mindless devices that are there to do our bidding, and more like curious children soaking up all of our actions like a sponge, and maybe exposing those actions at embarrassing times.
I am critical and paranoid of these features regardless of if it is Apple, Microsoft, Google or any other vendor. Just because you think you have nothing to hide, doesn’t mean you should mindlessly submit to being constantly observed by corporations or the state. As Snowden’s revelations expose, the line between the two is becoming increasingly blurry. Google, like Apple and Microsoft, has illustrated that they will gather whatever data they can about us to better understand how to market to us. They’ve also illustrated that the data they gather can be compromised and exploited against us.
I don’t think it is unreasonable to suggest that if they’re going to turn the camera on in an app on my device automatically, I should always have the option to deny that.