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Voice assistants on phones are handy things, really getting to know you – but just how much data are we volunteering in the name of convenience?
Siri, Cortana and Google Now are all easily tailored to your needs; more than that, they’re tailored to your desires: your want of news, locations, reminders… But how much is too much? Where do we draw the line?
Are We Just Statistics?
“We are just statistics, born to consume resources.”
– Horace, Roman Poet.
We are all chalked up into demographics, raw data – figures about what we eat and drink, how we’re entertained, where we live – so perhaps we feel like that’s okay, as long as you’re not being focused on as an individual. As an example, knowing that only 4% of the UK population regularly gives blood is quite different from knowing that John Smith who lives in Bristol, England, gives blood every three months.
However, that’s how loyalty cards work. Anyone in the UK with a Tesco Clubcard can see that their money-off coupons target the products they purchase on a semi-regular basis. That Tesco knows what each of us buy is offset by the incentive of getting a few pounds knocked off at the checkout. This means they can monitor trends, but also, as data can be stored for up to two years, focus on individuals.
Cortana, certainly, operates in a similar way: it’s a pretty ordinary system until you start inputting your personal information… then things get more interesting.
What They Know
Siri, Cortana and Google Now all know where you are – if you allow them to, that is. Siri can get you from one part of town to another; Cortana can remind you to pick up a book next time you’re at your parents’ house; Google Now can provide you with a shopping list when you’re in a particular store, and then remember where you’re parked afterwards!
iOS 8 has a lot of potential privacy issues, but many of these concern your location: depending on how conscious you are, you’ll probably want to stop apps tracking you in the background, disable Share My Location (which lets friends and family know if you’re nearby), and turn off Frequent Locations, used by Apple to remember where you go regularly. There are upsides to each (the latter lets you easily join networks), but some feel uneasy about location-based services.
Cortana also knows frequently visited locations and synchs these up with contacts. In a rather worrying Windows 10 preview, it was revealed that “[using] voice input features like speech-to-text, we may collect voice information and use it for purposes such as improving speech processing.” Doesn’t sound that bad – except that means Windows can track what you say. Nonetheless, the majority of MakeUseOf readers plan to install the update.
Both Cortana and Google Now define your home and work locations automatically, based on how often you frequent them.
All three have Facebook integration too, so what does that social network know about you? Well… There’s rather a lot – far too much to go into in depth. Your profile is you, full of your personality, your details, your likes (literally) and your friends. If you leave yourself logged in and like, share or comment on articles through your Facebook, you’re obviously leaving an electronic trail. But even when you log out, thanks to cookies, the social network knows what you do on the Internet.
What Do We Get In Return?
It’s a scary thought. What do we get in return from Facebook? Some entertainment, perhaps. Certainly the ability to keep in touch with those we would’ve lost contact with ages ago.
Cortana, Siri and Google Now all offer one simple thing, and it’s something smartphones are all about: convenience.
Location-based reminders, for instance, are really useful, whether that be providing you with a suitable shopping list, or telling you to drop off that DVD you borrowed from your brother. Leaving assistants access to your contacts lets you easily communicate with loved ones. Integration with social media means you don’t have to stop to update your status (also potentially saving you the time where you’d get distracted and scan through the timeline). Cortana can also offer some entertainment. Siri is mostly used for communication and searches.
Just use your voice assistant for a little while and see all its advantages.
Google maintains that all information is used to “improve your user experience and the overall quality of [their] services.” Microsoft says the data is used to “enable the features and services offered on the phone, carry out the transactions you requested or authorize, and display content and advertising that are customized to your interests and preferences. Information we receive may also be analyzed in order to improve features and services offered on the phone and other Microsoft products and services”. Apple does similar with your data, adding that it’s also used “for internal purposes such as auditing, data analysis, and research to improve Apple’s products, services, and customer communications.”
What Can You Do About It?
You’re far from helpless.
On iOS 8, you can tamper with data collection through Settings > Privacy. If Apple knowing where you are is too disconcerting, simply disable Location Services. A handy feature is an icon in the notification bar which will tell you when an app is collecting data about you in the background ie. when you wouldn’t usually know about it. It’s easy to turn on too:
Settings > Privacy > Location Services > System Services.
You can manage what information Cortana has about you through its Notebook, and alter Google Now preferences through the menu’s Customise Google Now. You can also turn off Google Now’s background data (furthermore saving battery) – but Google Play needs this turned on for downloads and synch.
How Much Is Too Much?
The question remains, where do we draw the line?
It’s all down to you as an individual. Maybe you think there’s little point in disabling Siri, Cortana or Google Now because they’re simply too useful. Perhaps a society where very little is private scares you.
Do the positives outweigh the negatives? Would you consider giving up the voice assistant on your phone? Have you already given it up? Have you found an alternative? What was the last straw?