A couple of weeks ago, a friend and I were talking about buying shoes. I mentioned that I was interested in buying a new pair of White Sk8-Hi Vans, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to buy them online or in person.A few hours later, as I was scrolling through Instagram on my iPhone at home, I started to see shoe ads. These ads weren’t just for any shoe brand; they were for Vans, and specifically for the exact Sk8-Hi shoes I had talked about earlier that day. I was shocked and a bit frightened that my phone had heard me talk about shoes and passed on the information for advertising.
Digital voice assistants like Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant can be handy in many aspects of our lives. We can ask them to send a text for us when our hands are full, set reminders or even just look up a definition of a word for us. But their intelligence and intrusiveness at times can be frightening.
That’s because our phones and many devices we use on a regular basis are always listening to us, even when we least expect them to. A company like Apple claims that they are programmed to only respond when they hear their “wakeup” voice command, as in, “Hey, Siri.” However, Lisa Eadicicco, a reporter for The Insider, reported that Apple faced a lawsuit in August of 2019 that accused them of violating their users’ privacy, alleging, “Siri users are being recorded without their consent and accuse Apple of failing to inform consumers that could happen.”
Amazon faced a similar problem after Bloomberg reported that the company hired thousands of employees to analyze audio every day from Alexa devices, in effect eavesdropping on our private and personal conversations. The audio subject to analysis even includes audio when the device isn’t activated or fully turned on.
In the early 1960s IBM introduced the first-ever voice assistant, IBM Shoebox. These assistants evolved over time, and in 2011 Apple introduced Siri. After that we got Google Now, Cortana (Microsoft) and Alexa (Amazon). When Siri was first introduced it reached a wide audience of people, since it was the first ever voice assistant connected to a smartphone. Now, these voice assistants can be found on just about any electronic device.
How are these companies getting away with this without breaking any laws? Although there isn’t a specific constitutional law that mentions the right to privacy in the company of smartphones, several amendments are related. The Fourth Amendment guarantees the “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures,” and the Fifth Amendment “provides for the right against self-incrimination, which justifies the protection of private information.”
Numerous cases and lawsuits have been filed against these companies for privacy concerns over the last several years. The Washington Post reported on one of these lawsuits, which has made its way through the federal court system in California. Federal District Court Judge Jeffery S. White in Oakland, California ruled that “the plaintiffs who are trying to make the suit a class action case could continue pursuing claims that Siri turned on unprompted and recorded conversations that it shouldn’t have and passed the data along to third parties, therefore violating user privacy.”
If so many lawsuits are being filed against these companies, why haven’t they improved or shown efforts to ensure our privacy? When will the federal government pass laws concerning our constitutional right to privacy when it comes to companies collecting our data from smartphones and many other advanced technological devices?
Tech companies should provide accurate details on what they do with your private information. We shouldn’t have to worry about companies spying on us every day.