The Next Thing: Apple Becoming Big Brother

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?