Apple’s Penchant for Privacy Makes Siri ‘Speaker’ Hard, but That’s Why We’ll Want It

| Editorial

Apple faces many obstacles if it wants to compete against Amazon Echo and Google's newly announced Home. The biggest obstacle is simply Apple's position on not collecting data on its customers. Ironically, that's exactly why many of us want the rumor that Apple is planning a "Siri speaker" to be true.

The Information broke the story—it's behind a paywall, but London's The Daily Mail printed many of its details. The short version is that Apple is reportedly planning to announce a "Siri speaker" with a microphone and a speaker that you could give commands to or ask questions of. The Siri-enabled device would be able to play music, give you headlines, and the other things one does with Siri.

The report said Apple would also open Siri up to third party developers—finally—and bring the technology to the Mac—finally.


TMO Concept Mockup of Siri-in-a-Box

All of this will be welcome news to fans of Apple and those invested in Apple's ecosystem, but that's where we get into some interesting territory. Many of us are fans of Apple in part because the company—alone among the tech giants—has built its business model around protecting our privacy.

And I really want this kind of functionality. I really want to be able to talk to my home constructively and productively. But I do not trust Amazon to listen to my every word. Or Google. Or Facebook. Or Microsoft. Rightly or wrongly, I do trust Apple.

Apple specifically doesn't compile profiles on us, and the company doesn't earn its money from selling those (nonexistent) profiles to the highest bidder. Apple CEO Tim Cook recently went so far as to say that Apple News doesn't need to know what song we were just listening to.

I posit that this is a mistake. For instance, if Apple News knew I spend an inordinate time listening to The Who, it would be able to offer me news stories about The Who's 50th Anniversary (!!!!!!) tour. If Apple News knew that I owned five books by Dan Simmons, it might offer me stories about a new book he had coming out. Or an interview he gave. Or a signing tour. Etc.

Such examples are endless, and it's why Google Now kicks iOS Proactive's metaphorical butt. I also think it's part of why Siri is seen as lagging behind competing services, even though it was heralded as the bee's knees when it shipped. Competitors like Amazon, Google, and Microsoft have been able to leapfrog Siri because they aren't constrained by such quaint notions as "respect for privacy."

As part of its commitment to our privacy, Apple has been working hard to keep data used by such things as Proactive local to our devices. Since the content on those devices is protected by end-user encryption, Apple avoids building profiles on us that could be exploited by Apple itself, subpoenaed by governments, or compromised by criminal hackers.

I laud that philosophy while lamenting the practical limitations it has on the kinds of services Google excels at. Even Amazon's Echo is being praised as a ground-breaking device, powered in part by the reality that Amazon already has enormous dossiers on every one of its users.

There are no easy answers on this subject, and I frankly believe that if any company can solve this sort of problem, it's Apple. But if Apple is going to enter the always-on, listening-to-everything market, Siri-in-a-box has got to be able to keep up with or surpass Amazon Echo and whatever Google ends up releasing.

That won't be easy.

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Perhaps a way to opt-in, via areas of selected interest, be it the aforementioned authors or other specific topics - granular control where the owner selects the level of privacy he/she wants. As in, I don’t want Apple to follow me around with a notebook, but I will tell Apple what I wish for them to analyze and present.



Very well said, sir.

You’ve succinctly articulated not only Apple’s but consumers’ conundrum of security (in the form of privacy here) vs convenience, so often addressed here at TMO. This is a quandary well understood by the tech giants and the security community (NB: security, not law enforcement or legislature), but only passingly by the lay community, with a tendency towards baseline complacency interrupted with transitory vigilance at times of crises.

While it might take only one notorious incident of AI-mediated privacy compromise (and yes, I realise that Siri et al are not true AIs) to bring this dialectic into public focus, barring a critical mass of exposure and privacy compromise, the risk remains for a resumption of complacency and silence of the lambs.

Another option, not ideal but at least proactive, would be for Apple to post a series of educational articles, attenuated for the lay public, on their website around these choices and how it affects specific devices, software, services and what some of these critical options are. In fact, Apple could keep these short and digestible by focussing on specific devices and services in their arsenal and how these are affected by the security/convenience interplay. These could be supplemented with links to more in-depth articles for the inquisitive.

The obvious limitation to this is that most of the readership (the echo chamber) would already understand these issues, but they could in turn direct friend, colleagues and family to these pieces. It would at least be a start for those who wish to know.

Just a thought.

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