Lockstep

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Email: swilson@lockstep.com.au

A penny for your marketable thoughts?

Most people think that Apple's Siri is the coolest thing they've ever seen on a smart phone. It certainly is a milestone in practical human-machine interfaces, and will be widely copied. The combination of deep search plus natural language processing (NLP) plus voice recognition is dynamite.

If you haven't had the pleasure ... Siri is a wondrous function built into the Apple iPhone. It’s the state-of-the-art in Artificial Intelligence and NLP. You speak directly to Siri, ask her questions (yes, she's female) and tell her what to do with many of your other apps. Siri integrates with mail, text messaging, maps, search, weather, calendar and so on. Ask her "Will I need an umbrella in the morning?" and she'll look up the weather for you – after checking your calendar to see what city you’ll be in tomorrow. It's amazing.

Natural Language Processing is a fabulous idea of course. It radically improves the usability of smart phones, and even their safety with much improved hands-free operation.

An important technical detail is that NLP is very demanding on computing power. In fact it's beyond the capability of today's smart phones, even if each of them alone is more powerful than all of NASA's computers in 1969!. So all Siri's hard work is actually done on Apple's mainframe computers scattered around the planet. That is, all your interactions with Siri are sent into the cloud.

Imagine Siri was a human personal assistant. Imagine she's looking after your diary, placing calls for you, booking meetings, planning your travel, taking dictation, sending emails and text messages for you, reminding you of your appointments, even your significant other’s birthday. She's getting to know you all the while, learning your habits, your preferences, your personal and work-a-day networks.

And she's free!

Now, wouldn't the offer of a free human PA strike you as too good to be true?

Indeed it would. So understand this about Siri: she's continuously reporting back to base. If Apple were a secretarial placement agency, what they get in return for the free services is a transcript of what you've said, the people you've been in touch with, where you've been, and what you plan to do. Apple won't say what they plan to do with all this data, how long they'll keep it, nor who they'll share it with. Apple's Privacy Policy (dated October 2011, accessed 12 March 2012) doesn't even mention Siri nor the collection of the voice-to-text data.

When you dictate your mails and text messages to Siri, you’re providing Apple with content that's usually off limits to carriers, phone companies and ISPs. Siri is an end run around telecommunicationss intercept laws.

Of course there are many, many examples of where free social media apps mask a commercial bargain. Face recognition is the classic case. It was first made available on photo sharing sites as a neat way to organise one’s albums, but then Facebook went further by inviting photo tags from users and then automatically identifying people in other photos on others' pages. What's happening behind the scenes is that Facebook is running its face recognition templates over the billions of photos in their databases (which were originally uploaded for personal use long before face recognition was deployed). Given their business model and their track record, we can be certain that Facebook is using face recognition to identify everyone they possibly can, and thence work out fresh associations between countless people and situations accidentally caught on camera. Combine this with image processing and visual search technology (like Google "Goggles") and the big social media companies have an incredible new eye in the sky. They can work out what we're doing, when, where and with whom. Nobody will need to like expressly "like" anything anymore when OSNs can literally see what cars we're driving, what brands we're wearing, where we spend our vacations, what we're eating, what makes us laugh, who makes us laugh. Apple, Facebook and others have understandably invested hundreds of millions of dollars in image recognition start-ups and intellectual property; with these tools they convert the hitherto anonymous images into content-addressable PII gold mines. It's the next frontier of Big Data.

Now, there wouldn't be much wrong with these sorts of arrangements if the social media corporations were up-front about them, and exercised some restraint. In their Privacy Policies they should detail what Personal Information they are extracting and collecting from all the voice and image data; they should explain why they collect this information, what they plan to do with it, how long they will retain it, and how they promise to limit secondary usage. They should explain that biometrics technology allows them to generate brand new PII out of members' snapshots and utterances. And they should acknowledge that by rendering data identifiable, they become accountable in many places under privacy and data protection laws for its safekeeping as PII. It's just not good enough to vaguely reserve their rights to "use personal information to help us develop, deliver, and improve our products, services, content, and advertising". They should treat their customers -- and all those innocents about whom they collect PII indirectly -- with proper respect, and stop blandly pretending that 'service improvement' is what they're up to.

Siri along with face recognition herald a radical new type of privatised surveillance, and on a breathtaking scale. While Facebook stealthily "x-ray" photo albums without consent, Apple now has even more intimate access to our daily routines and personal habits. And they don’t even pay as much as a penny for our thoughts.

As cool as Siri may be, I myself will decline to use any natural language processing while the software runs in the cloud, and while the service providers refuse to restrain their use of my voice data. I'll wait for NLP to be done on my device with my data kept private.

And I'd happily pay cold hard cash for that kind of app, instead of having an infomopoly embed itself in my personal affairs.

Posted in Social Networking, Social Media, Privacy, Language, Biometrics, Big Data

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