Do our phones really listen to us?

The answer is more complex than a simple yes or no and must include not only the technical issues but also the legal limitations

(foto: Getty Images)

A few days ago he did a lot of discussion purpose of Michele Serra, in which the author told of having talked about a certain product in the car, with his wife, and then having found it as advertising suggestion as soon as he got home and started surfing the pc. The author’s explanation? The mobile phone, only witness, in addition to the couple, of the conversation.

Legend or reality?

The news did to smile many people, unleashing a certain general irony, since what smartphones listen to you is, in broad terms, one urban myth. To the point that the creative Matt Reed he has invented a kind of social experiment in which he promotes an app that makes you money every time you mention a certain product in a conversation. The app is called SayPal and does not exist. But, then, these smartphone they listen to us or not? Let’s leave out for a moment the itchy Serra case and the possibility that the author has let himself go to one joke functional to its editorial. If it were true that someone, simply by conversing in the presence of the telephone, finds himself someone advertising, the explanations do exist, even if they are a bit complex.

No wiretapping, please

We exclude, first of all, that (actually rather popular) of the special forces department X and Y that they record everything we say. I trojan They are useful for this purpose, of course, but they are very expensive, they are used for wiretapping, they are legally well regulated and in any case, they certainly do not serve to intercept conversations, pass them to the Google on duty and turn them into advertising. Your favorite special forces have more important things to do than become shopping assistant of ordinary citizens.

The technology is there and it works well

So there are two options left, one more technical, and one that we can define more … social. The first: lo smartphone actually picks up a conversation. Excluding the possibility a priori is wrong, for the simple reason that it has ability to do so. If this happens, even in spite of strict contractual conditions such as those that, for example, Apple and Google offer to their public, it is a different matter. We are simply comparing technical feasibility with legal feasibility, which corresponds to trusting numbers or trusting promises. Calm down, I’m certainly not saying that giants like Google enjoy making fun of the law or their users. I’m just stating that technically is possible that a phone picks up a conversation, extracts keywords from it and uses them for purposes such as advertising promotion. This process, verified several times in the past, is calmed, in fact, by policy legali.

The concept is very simple: if you activate voice control, such as the well-known Google Assistant, Siri, Alexa and so on, the smartphone he must to be able to listen voices in the vicinity. This, in fact, is the only way to be able to capture the words and translate them into commands. The system however, has one entrance barrier: a command that tells the voice assistant that, from that moment on, the user actually wants to pass commands to him. The classic “Ok Google” O “Hey Siri“, To be clear. When technology takes the lead, it enters one methods of interpretation of the words it receives: translates them into written form, evaluates them, executes i commands correspondents (if he understands them). Without the activation command, in theory, the smartphone does not interpret no word. So much so that, in the limit, it can happen to activate the command accidentally, pronouncing it without realizing it, or because the assistant misinterprets the words and, in fact, hears “Hey Siri” O “Ok Google”Even if they are not pronounced.

The grading process

Apple, which is one of the most privacy-conscious companies, clearly explains in a special section of its website that the activation command “Hey Siri“Is what, in fact, allows to Apple to send voice commands to its servers, while until that moment they remain only in the user’s device. However, Apple carries out a process of grading, with which it reserves the right to keep a portion of the audio conversations (about 0.2%) to improve the service. At one time he reserved the right to do it with real audio recordings, but for about a couple of years has changed its policy and uses transcripts: “Firstly, by default, we will no longer keep audio recordings of Siri interactions. Instead, we will continue to use computer-generated transcripts to make the service more accurate”.

It’s actually the exact same thing, but basically it’s about the service improvement, not advertising. There is no need to be conspiracy theorists but, again, it is good to consider this as one promise made by a company. We believe it is valid because it comes from Apple, but in the world of security and privacy, in principle, we should only trust the numbers. And the numbers say that, with similar technologies, but less serious companies, the smartphone can intercept a conversation, transcribe it automatically and use every single word for the most disparate purposes. For example, recognizing names or types of products to convey advertising. Furthermore, let us remember that the technologies of Vocal recognition not necessarily only those developed by the Big in the sector, and by the manufacturers of operating systems. Exist thousands of apps equipped with the same capabilities, which sometimes arise specifically to intercept conversations and transform them into targeted advertising, and that escape the controls of the app-stores of the phones.

Memory jokes

So we can make irony about stories and editorials, sure, but technically it is not such a remote possibility. For everything else there is the second option, the one I have defined social which concerns, more than anything else, the our brain. Because the truth is, much more often than we realize, we are interested in a given topic long before we remember we did. And so we can have the perception to talk about a trolley with wheels for the first time, while we are in the car with someone, but maybe, in the days or even hours before, without even realizing it, we have web searches in this sense. Or maybe we talked about it by the way on social network.

Social networks and search engines, unlike voice assistants or apps that use the voice, do not have no qualms in respecting the privacy: their business is based on this kind of information and, therefore, they take advantage of the best of technology to tap them to their users. The fact, then, that ours subconscious take us to talk about that subject again, and at that point there is we remember, turns it all into one fatal coincidence which leads us to correlate the memorized event with the consequence of events that, instead, we have not memorized. So let’s put like to a post from a friend who talks about a trolley with wheels, we forget it, we talk about a trolley with wheels while we are in the car, we get home and we find ourselves advertising of that product. Guess what logical connection does our brain make?

As a bonus option, the coincidence. “Yes okay, coincidence”Someone will say. Instead there are mathematical principles, explained for example in the beautiful book The improbability principle: why coincidences, miracles and rare event happen every day, which explain that the coincidences exist and they do happen. Only then we like to call them miracles, bad luck, lucky breaks.

O smartphones listening.

Categories:   Mobile

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