The Impact of Always On Technology and Consumer Privacy

September 18, 2015

When Apple announced the iPhone 6s at a special event on September 9th, the latest flagship phone came with typical upgrades: a better camera, processor, and even a new 3D Touch system were unveiled. However, some new software features were met with heightened concerns over user privacy. These features were Hey Siri and Live Photos.
Hey Siri is the same voice based personal assistant that has been a feature of previous iPhones. The only difference is, on the iPhone 6s, Siri will always be on and waiting for voice commands. Saying “Hey Siri” activates Siri without having to press a button. Previously, iPhone’s had to be charging for this feature to be active. This means that owners of iPhone 6s’ will have everything they say analyzed to recognize whether an appropriate command to Siri has been given. Apple has stated that anything before the words “Hey Siri” are not recorded and any data related to conversations is quickly overwritten. It is unclear whether the always on feature can be disabled without completely disabling Siri.
Live Photos captures three seconds before and after taking a photo in order to animate a photograph beyond the moment a picture is taken. This does not pose an issue to privacy, but it may be a concern for people who buy iPhones with smaller storage space. A Live Photo can take up to twice the amount of space as a conventional photo. Apple has reported that this feature can be disabled by the user.
The always on feature of Apple’s Hey Siri technology is not unique, and it merely elevates Siri to the level of its competitors. Google Now is Google’s personal assistant. Google Now does not focus on conversations in the same way as Siri but learns patterns and presents potentially helpful information through an application. Cortana, Microsoft’s built in personal assistant, is more similar to Apple’s Siri but has also been integrated into Window’s 10, Microsoft’s latest operating system. It is likely that Siri will make the jump to Apple’s computer operating system at some point in the future as well. Both Google Now and Cortana have active listening features and they work by listening for a certain phrase to be activated. When the always on feature was implemented in Google and Microsoft’s always on intelligent personal assistants, there were little to no concerns over privacy. However, Google’s and Microsoft’s technology is not as synonymous with automated intelligent personal assistants as Apple’s Siri. Now that most Android, Apple, and Windows based phones will have the potential for always on listening there is potential for both accidental breaches and a target for hacking.
Technology is increasingly able to do more novel things, and smartphone companies are racing to come up with the next must have feature.

Technology can move faster than the law can keep up with. As a result, technological innovation invariably moves the line for user privacy as well.

Technology companies have adapted different approaches as to how much importance they choose to place on privacy. Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, is a vocal supporter of user privacy and has gone as far to say that people have “a fundamental right to privacy.”  This stance has put Apple at odds with the federal government, because Apple has denied the Department of Justice’s requests for encrypted iMessages. Apple’s stance on privacy has been a selling point recently as Cook has opposed Google’s practice of selling user information to other companies. Maintaining this identity helps Apple stay on the cutting edge in the ever cutthroat smartphone wars.
These new features should not deter you from getting an iPhone or any other phone with active listening for that matter, but it may be a source of alarm if you are afraid of a future where everything you say or do could potentially be recorded. The iPhone 6s is on track to beat the previous year’s presale record, so there is no evidence that these features are deterring buyers.  In addition, there is no evidence that Apple is recording or saving iPhone users conversations. However, you should always be careful what you say. You never know who actually is listening.