The Next Thing: Apple Becoming Big Brother

| Analysis

Fourteen years ago Google Search first hit our screens and no one could believe how drop-dead wonderful it was. After thinking that search couldn’t get better than AltaVista, we were treated to an absurdly simple interface that magically could find nearly everything. Jaws dropped around the world. 

It took some years for the privacy lawsuits to rain over Mountain View, but rain it did and the flood is far from over.

Fast forward to the release of the iPhone 4S on October 4th, bringing us Siri which has an amazingly simple interface that magically can find nearly everything by talking to it. It’s only been out a few weeks and the word Siri has already been welcomed into the popular parlance of even Muggles. In this short period of time, jaws are still on the floor. 

It’s a good bet that when, and maybe before, the bloom comes off the rose on Siri, the lawsuits will pour over Cupertino.

Did anyone read the EULA you clicked through to ask Siri to Open the Pod Bay Doors? It went over 40 pages if I recall. It turns out printing it in a number of different languages upped the page count. But here is the important part. It may be instructive to finally read it.

When you use Siri, the things you say will be recorded and sent to Apple to process your requests. Your device will also send Apple other information, such as your first name and nickname; the names, nicknames, and relationship with you (e.g., “my dad”) of your address book contacts; and song names in your collection (collectively, your “User Data”). All of this data is used to help Siri understand you better and recognize what you say. It is not linked to other data that Apple may have from your use of other Apple services. By using Siri, you agree and consent to Apple’s and its subsidiaries’ and agents’ transmission, collection, maintenance, processing, and use of this information, including your voice input and User Data, to provide and improve Siri and other Apple products and services. If you have Location Services turned on, the location of your iOS Device at the time you make a request will also be sent to Apple to help Siri improve the accuracy of its response to your location-based requests. You may disable the location-based functionality of Siri by going to the Location Services setting on your iOS Device and turning off the individual location setting for Siri. You can also turn off Siri altogether at any time. To do so, open Settings, tap General, tap Siri, and slide the Siri switch to “off”. You may also restrict the ability to use Siri under the Restrictions Setting.

What it seems to say is that Apple can keep all data spoken into Siri including relationships, all your user data and if you have locations services turned on (this part can be important), exactly where you are. User data includes everything: your contacts, calendar, Mom’s phone number, whatever. Apple has the right to collect, maintain, process and use all of this, to improve Siri and other Apple products and services, which sounds as vague as a ghost. It doesn’t specify how long Apple can keep this information, nor does it say what it can do with it it.

Google was in the same situation and taking a brief look at what happened to that company can shed some light on what Apple has to look forward to over the coming months. 

Google is in the data collection business. From the start the company collected everything that it could on everyone that used any of their products. For simple search it wasn’t really clear why it was doing so outside of improving search results, which sounds like a noble cause. 

In 2000 Google came out with Google AdWords monetizing all its data collection. Suddenly it could target ads to you. Yes you, in particular, based on what the company knows about you. This single-handedly built the Google empire, and it really didn’t seem all that creepy at the time, at least according to Google data. 

And then the lawsuits poured in. Google originally wanted to keep data forever. Then it changed that to around 20 years, since it was an organic thing. Google wanted the data for as long as it would take for a baby to grow to adulthood. The courts said 18-24 months which later became 18 months.  The period was reduced to nine months in 2008 and Google wasn’t very happy about that. Peter Fleischer, Google’s Global Privacy Counsel, wrote:

“When we began anonymizing after 18 months, we knew it meant sacrifices in future innovations in all of these areas. We believed further reducing the period before anonymizing would degrade the utility of the data too much and outweigh the incremental privacy benefit for users.”

After that period of time Google didn’t really have to purge the data, it had to anonymize it. That meant that it had to strip off IP addresses so the data couldn’t be representative of any particular computer or by extension, location or person. Google disagreed that IP addresses could represent locations but the European Union didn’t buy it. 

“Do No Evil,” Google’s motto, has taken on sardonic overtones for many of us, but others understand that we have to give up some of our privacy to reap the amazing benefits of firms knowing something about us. This is has become a continuum, and you probably fall somewhere between total privacy and total openness. 

This is pretty common knowledge. But what you might not know is that the Electronics Communications Act of 1986 provides for the American Government to demand information from ISPs or seemingly anyone with digitally collected data, without a warrant and without even notifying the user who was involved in the request. 

Additionally, the number of US Government requests for Google based information has risen 29% over the last six months according to a Wired report. From January 1st to June 30th, Google received 5950 criminal investigation information requests for user data and complied with 93% of them. 

Now let’s get back to Siri. We don’t know what Apple has in mind for Siri data, and any guesses would be nothing more than guesses. We also don’t know what the implication of location data collection might be.

Remember that making location anonymous was defined as eradicating IP addresses in Google’s case. If IP addresses  gleaned from Siri were stripped and erased, doesn’t that still leave the location data collected buy the iPhone 4S’ GPS? In researching this post, we couldn’t find anything having to do with location data and privacy, so if you know something, please help us out and write a comment about it. 

But assuming location data hasn’t been addressed. Apple theoretically could keep information that would track you forever, or at least until laws are updated. 

A major problem with the legal system and technology is that technology has always moved much quicker than the law, which has always been left in the position of trying to play catch-up. In the time it takes to do so, a lot of questionable things can take place, and the wheels of justice grind exceeding slow

We can see Siri’s data collection and privacy becoming a major issue in a very short period of time. It’s true that Apple wisely put out Siri as beta software, since in playing with it for a few weeks, it’s really not as magical as it first seemed, but that’s not to say it won’t be, given time. Beta software is meant to collect all the data it can to make things better for the “ready for prime time” release. The more data Apple gets, the better. But then again…

We believe that eventually Siri will be incorporated into everything Apple and the introduction of a voice query interface marks a major turning point in the advancement of personal computing. 

But everything can also have a dark side and in fairness to all the wide-eyed candy-colored wonderment that Siri has brought, soon enough a Pandora’s box of privacy issues will be opened and who knows what’s inside?

Comments

mhikl

Seems scary, and I don?t just mean boogyman under the bed. There seems to be only questions as to what this all means in real life terms. Is this information safe in some Apple depository where good things occurs that make the user experience magical? Sounds good. Is it safe from prodding hands, the government and its services? Is superfluous data kept, stuff not needed now but might prove valuable in the future? Not sounding so good on these two points.

I love my Apple company but the wiggle of corruption for the best of intentions is too obviously delicious to not step beyond the pale, even by the right minded. Such tastes no better from our favourite fruit than it does from Google or MicroSoft.

Is there any way round this? Purchase your Apple products by cash and a pseudonym? Purchase cash cards for use on all Apple Store transactions? I doubt if there is a sure way to anonymity in this electronic world of ours.

I think I could put up with my data stripped of anything that would identify me, but some monster gathering and watching over my family and our ways , too creepy.

d'monder

Red flags should always raise at “Trust us.  It’s good for you”.

Even with Apple.

Jamie

Not cool. There is no separation between this and everything that Google embodies concerning their business model, and I just can’t get behind it. Apple needs to address this, stat. I’m all for simplicity and ease of use, but our give me convenience or give me death culture is going to bite us on the ass, but quick.

I’ve never been under any illusion that Apple is anything other than a corporation that exists to make money, but this is one of the first times I’ve considered passing on their products for being treated poorly as a customer, and I’m surprised as it seems counter to their operational philosophy of the past 15 years or so. Apple, Google, Facebook, whatever,  you are not welcome in my private life, and I’m sure as hell not going to pay you to be there. Sad.

Tiger

Apple will have quite the mountain to climb to even explain why they are collecting one shred of data. It’s not necessary. If Siri is nothing other than a data collection tool for Apple, shame on them. Talk about a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

I don’t have a 4s and I’m not getting one. Supposedly Siri is coming for MacOS too. And I won’t be installing it either. This is just ridiculous now. A 40 page EULA??? HAH. (not Hal)

Close the pod bay doors. I’m not coming back in.

other side

Big opportunity for a Siri clone that doesn’t collect data…

Statistically Insignificant

How about the Cloud? Apple’s and everyone else’s.  The picture that’s being painted is that of having nice, light ultra-convenient non-storage devices which store all of one’s documents and photos and etc. out there somewhere where neither control nor privacy is, nor can be, assured.  One-stop shopping for intelligence and ad agencies.

Talk about Big Brother! And the world is happily dancing its way into the fold.

Lee Dronick

I am not seeing the problem

When you use Siri, the things you say will be recorded and sent to Apple to process your requests.

Yes, that is how it works. Could it currently be done on the device?

Your device will also send Apple other information, such as your first name and nickname; the names, nicknames, and relationship with you (e.g., ?my dad?) of your address book contacts; and song names in your collection (collectively, your ?User Data?). All of this data is used to help Siri understand you better and recognize what you say.

Once again that is how it is done, could it be done differently?

It is not linked to other data that Apple may have from your use of other Apple services.

This may be the only problem. How do we know they won’t link it to other services? However, so what? Where is the real threat to you? Concerned about where your kids go to school; Worry about the guy hanging out across the street from who can snatch a kid, not the guy a thousand miles away looking at data from millions of Siri users.

More importantly we should be hounding our elected officials to modify the Electronics Communications Act to require search warrants.

Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

Nemo set to launch in 5… 4… 3… 2… 1…

other side

How do we know they won?t link it to other services? However, so what?

What happens when someone does a search for something deemed illegal or inappropriate?

Does Apple hand it off to the authorities, who can track a user down via their GPS location and “detain” them?  SHOULD Apple hand it off to the authorities, if doing so could prevent a crime?

Government wiretapping is an old can of worms to itself.  But when the provider listens in & compiles data (with your full agreement of them doing so)... where does that lead?

Lee Dronick

What happens when someone does a search for something deemed illegal or inappropriate?

You need to ask that of Google or whatever search engine you are using, with or without Siri.

Does Apple hand it off to the authorities, who can track a user down via their GPS location and ?detain? them?  SHOULD Apple hand it off to the authorities, if doing so could prevent a crime?

If I see you robbing a bank should I call 911?

Listen people I don’t like that Apple. Google, or whomever is tracking me/us around even if my biggest crime is sneaking a McRib when I should be having a veggie burger, but I have a choice to use Siri or not.

If you want things different then make it the law of the land that they can not do that. Complaining about it here won’t change anything, contact your Representative and Senators.

Phred

An system that learns, as Siri does, collects data…

Dane Brown

Now I’m a little worried that I read those funny things to ask Siri.  I tried the “I need to hide a dead body” I wonder if I’ll be getting a visit from the boys in blue?

mhikl

Speaking of red flags, I am always suspicious when a flurry of non-members suddenly pipe up. Same person is always a possibility.

Lee, you may be right. However, if I find it creepy about Google as a collection agency, I have to question others, even Apple. What I want to see is an honest explanation by Tim C. There may be perfectly good reasons this is happening with no clandestine intentions in the workings.

Lee Dronick

Now I?m a little worried that I read those funny things to ask Siri.? I tried the ?I need to hide a dead body? I wonder if I?ll be getting a visit from the boys in blue?

Apparently so many Siri users have tried that phrase that it would take years for the cops to get around to you.

Sea story time. Back in the late ‘70s i pick up the phone and call the chartroom “Where are those 2 Kilos I bought in Subic?” The young sailor on the other end asked what they looked like and I told him “They were in a plastic bag and wrapped with tape.”

A while later the Executive Officer took me aside and asked if I was dealing in pot.

No, of course not why do you ask?

“I heard you bought a couple of kilos.”

Yeah, OPNAV Form 4790 2k

This was form we used in maintenance management and it was commonly called a 2 Kilo.

Gators Fan

Thanks, Apple, but no thanks. I’ll pass on Siri and stick with my iPhone 4 (for now).

Lee Dronick

Thanks, Apple, but no thanks. I?ll pass on Siri and stick with my iPhone 4 (for now).

You could pass on Siri with an iPhone 4S, the use of the service is not mandatory.

jfbiii

Apple will have quite the mountain to climb to even explain why they are collecting one shred of data.

“All of this data is used to help Siri understand you better and recognize what you say.”

Everest ain’t what it used to be.

brett_x

At first, this whole “data collection” stuff used to bother me. But now that Apple is doing it, I realize it’s good for me. Or at least, it can be.
Okay, that’s sort-of a trolling statement, but I do sort of mean it.

In my opinion, Google has a strong following primarily because they give things away for free. But we’ve always known that it comes at the cost of some sort of back-end monetization.

Apple certainly does many things to make money, but Apple is better known for creating a great user experience. It’s the reason I use Apple products. It’s the reason they have such a strong following.

So now that Apple is the focus of data collection policies, It gives me a chance to reflect on it. How does this data collection give me a better user experience? And what limit am I comfortable with (what actually matters, vs a privacy knee-jerk)?  With Siri, it’s clear that in the above, associating “Dad” with my “david_x” contact is going to provide me with a better experience. And I want Siri to know where I am so that I can get, for example, relevant search results for places to eat, should I need that guidance. It’s a better user experience, and Apple doesn’t even have to make money providing those results. (They probably will, but they don’t have to. They’ve already made money on me buying the phone/contract.)

So, here’s the chance for Apple to really make a difference in the data collection policies of the future. Since they don’t need to monetize data collection, they have the chance to blaze a path with data collection policies that protect consumers in ways that actually matter while providing some data collection that will benefit the user first, and Apple second (through loyalty by benefitting the user first).

2old4fun

What data can Apple collect from my phone that is not readily available?  the IRS has everything an more than is on my phone.  Does the IRS protect the data better than Apple or Google?  Does the IRS monetize the data that they collect from me and all of my financial institutions.  Do other government agencies have access to that data?  Do hacker have access to the data?

I think that privacy is a nebulous concept.  If I choose not to tell you something about me, how long and at what cost will it take you to get the information?

For me, I will take the convenience of Siri to set appointments in my calendar, remind me of things I need to do, get answers to questions that I ask and make my life a little easier.  If Apple makes money from what I do then maybe the next Apple product I buy will be a little cheaper or better.

David Winograd

For me, I will take the convenience of Siri to set appointments in my calendar, remind me of things I need to do, get answers to questions that I ask and make my life a little easier.

I agree completely.

I didn’t mean my post to be a Halloween screed on Apple coming to get you, or in any way think that there are necessarily bad ethics involved.

I just wrote about what I believe will come to pass in the next months.
I believe that the suits and privacy questions will emerge and that is regardless of whether there is anything wrong is done.

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