Apple and Google suspend some of their eavesdropping

Two of the world’s leading voice assistant makers pulled the plug on their respective analytics programmes of Siri and Google Assistant after private information including confidential conversations were leaked.

Apple decided to suspend its outsourced programme to “grade” Siri, by which it assesses the voice assistant’s response accuracy, following reports that private conversations are being listened to by its contractors without the users’ explicit consent. The company committed to add an opt-out option for users in a future update of Siri. It also promised that the programme would not be restarted until it had completed a thorough review.

“We are committed to delivering a great Siri experience while protecting user privacy. While we conduct a thorough review, we are suspending Siri grading globally,” the Cupertino-based iPhone maker told The Guardian. “Additionally, as part of a future software update, users will have the ability to choose to participate in grading.”

This is in response to the leak that was first reported by the British broadsheet, which received tipoff from whistle-blowers. The paper learned that contractors regularly hear private conversations ranging from dialogues between patients and doctors, to communications between drug dealers and buyers, with everything is between. These could include cases when Siri has triggered unintentionally without the users’ awareness.

The biggest problem with Apple’s analytics programme is that it does not explicitly disclose to consumers that some of Siri recordings are shared with contractors in different parts of the world who will listen to the anonymous content, as a means to improve Siri’s accuracy. By not being upfront, Apple does not provide users with the option to opt out either.

Shortly before Apple’s decision to call a halt to Siri grading, Google also pulled the plug on its own human analysis of Google Assistant in the European Union, reported Associated Press. The company promised to the office of Johannes Caspar, Hamburg’s commissioner for data protection and Germany’s lead regulator of Google on privacy issues, that the suspension will last at least three months.

The decision was made after Google admitted that one of the language reviewers it partners with, who are supposed to assess Google Assistant’s response accuracy, “has violated our data security policies by leaking confidential Dutch audio data.” Over 1,000 private conversations in Flemish, some of which included private data, were sent to the Belgian news outlet VRT. Though the messages are supposed to be anonymised, staff at VRT were able to identify the users through private information like home addresses.

At that time Google promised “we will take action. We are conducting a full review of our safeguards in this space to prevent misconduct like this from happening again.”

These are not the first cases where private conversations are leaked over voice assistants. Last year an Alexa-equipped Amazon Echo recorded a conversation between a couple in Portland, Oregan, and sent it to a friend, which was another recent case that rang the alarm bell of private data security.

It should not surprise those in the tech world that AI powered natural language processing software still has a long way to go before it can get all the intricacies right. Before that it needs human input to continuously improve the accuracy. The problems that bedevilled Google and Apple today, and Amazon in the past, and Microsoft (Cortana) which fortunately has not suffered high profile embarrassment recently, are down to the lack of stringent oversight of the role humans play, the lack of clear communication to consumers that their interactions with voice assistants may be used for data analysis purposes, and the failure to give consumers the choice to opt out.

There is also the controversy of data sovereignty, as well as the question of whether private data should be allowed to be stored in the cloud or should be kept on device. Apple’s leak case is not geographically specified, but Google’s case is a clear violation of GDPR.  According to the AP report, Germany has already started proceedings against Google.

The virtual battle for the soul of the smart home

Google has made its move in the prolonged battle with Amazon for control of the smart home, but are the speakers a glamourous distraction from the real fight.

It has been a couple of months of back and forth. Whichever seems to release a new piece of hardware or update to the virtual assistant, it doesn’t seem to be long before there is a counter move from the opposition. It’s one of the longest games of ‘mine is bigger than yours’ we’ve seen in the tech space for a while.

But is it nothing more than an intriguing side-quest? Are there genuine ambitions to compete in the hardware game or is it a ploy to get the rest of the industry up to speed? We have a feeling victory in the smart home will be more on the software side than the hardware.

Let’s start with the hardware. Following a little spat with Amazon over how YouTube is displayed on the Echo Show, Google is set to bring out ‘Manhattan’, a similar product to the Echo Show in it being a smart home device with a screen. According to TechCrunch sources, Google has been working on the device in a secret lab somewhere with the intention of releasing it towards the end of this year, or the beginning of 2018.

But is this just a ruse to get the rest of the world up to speed? Neither Amazon or Google have heritage (or particularly successful heritage) in the hardware world, but without the introduction of Amazon Echo or the Google Home device there might not have been much momentum in this sub-sector. But now there is, as the rest of the industry start to bring out their own connected devices after seeing there is an appetite from the consumer.

Let’s be honest, Google and Amazon might pump a load of cash into hardware, but they probably won’t be able to compete with the established players in the electronics market once they are moving in the right direction. Would you rather buy a TV off Amazon or Samsung? A speaker off Google or Bose? The electronics brands have better reputations, and we have a feeling once the idea hits the mainstream markets, the general public will go with what they know.

But we don’t think that matters. Once the rest of the hardware space is making connected devices on a mass scale, this side-quest could be considered mission complete. It would allow Amazon and Google to concentrate on what they do best; software and services.

This is where the financial battle of the smart home will be won or lost. Who can get their virtual assistant into the most devices and manage the relationship with the consumer. An example of this is Google’s new partnerships with Nvidia and Sony. On the Nvidia Shield TV and Sony Bravia TVs, the virtual assistant and connected platform will be Google.

This means Google will manage the relationship with the consumer, and also the money which can be taken from it. Once the idea of having a virtual assistant has been normalised, the money will start streaming in. If you as Alexa to order you a pizza from the top-rated takeaway in your area, Amazon will probably be taking a cut of the cash. Or if you ask Google to add toothpaste to your shopping list and then to organize the delivery, it will take a slice of the action somewhere. Both will be facilitating the interaction between the consumer and third parties, and they won’t be doing it for free.

The one who has their virtual assistant in the most devices around the world will make the most cash. Yes, there will still be money to be made from the hardware products, but this is not the core competency of either of these businesses. Creating an audience behind a walled-garden and then monetizing access is a brilliant business model, and one few have been able to nail.

This is perhaps one of the reasons we are surprised Facebook hasn’t been making more promising strides in the virtual assistant world. This is a business model which is almost a carbon-copy of how the social media platform stormed to the top of the technology world. There are reports of Zuckerberg and his cronies working on their own assistant, but they are proving to be quite late to the game.

So yes, the battle of one-upmanship is proving to be an entertaining one, but let’s not forget about where these organizations traditionally make serious cash. Software is going to rule the world, and it won’t be very different here. The winner of the smart home will be the one with the best virtual assistant.