Do Siri, Cortana & Google Now Need Too Much Personal Data?

Philip Bates 21-10-2014

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

Google Earth 2

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 What Is The Best Free Antivirus Software? [MakeUseOf Poll] Because no matter how careful you are when using the Internet, it's always advisable to have antivirus software installed on your computer. Yes, even Macs. Read More .

Depending on your Google account, Google Now brings together all the information about you – your emails, location, search history – and works in the background. It’s all there in the Privacy Policy. Here are five things Google itself probably knows about you Five Things Google Probably Knows About You Read More .

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 Cortana Talks Back: Laugh, Cry & Love With Windows Phone's Digital Assistant Bored with no one to talk to? Why not strike up a conversation with your Windows Phone? These cues will make Cortana talk. Read More . Siri is mostly used for communication and searches Siri, Why Don't You Understand Me? [INFOGRAPHIC] One of the best things about an iPhone 4S is the Siri speech recognition app, but as I have increasingly noticed, it doesn't seem to like me and my Scottish accent (cue lots of moments... Read More .


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?

Siri Knows About Me

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?

Related topics: Microsoft Cortana, Online Privacy, Siri.

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  1. Anonymous
    October 20, 2015 at 1:20 pm

    Keeping records of your voice and its interpretations is how virtual assistants can more accurately understand things you say more often, and can understand your voice better.

    It's like a human! If I immediately forgot everything you said just after completing the tasks, and could never tell who you are by your voice, I'd make a pretty lousy assistant, wouldn't I?

  2. Anonymous
    July 29, 2015 at 4:06 pm

    It all seems like a great compromise but more than likely that's only because the majority of people don't understand the privacy they're giving up or that they have a choice regarding what and how much information they're allowing to be accessed. I just upgraded to Windows 10 and I will agree that it is a huge improvement but there are a lot of privacy cons that go along with that update if you don't know how to turn off the information Microsoft has set to obtain in their default settings. For example, Cortana wants access to your location, your calendar, your webcam, microphone, SMS and MMS, data usage, and more than a handful of other private data "statistics" that is used however they wish to use it, including the sale of personal information for advertising purposes or any other financial gain ideas. It's all up to the individual if they cons are worth the pros but do the research and find out what all the cons are before making that decision!