Overheard Underheard: Under-the-Radar Speech News
The next time you're cursing into your cell phone—just for fun, of course—consider what happens to all of those expletives that you spew into your phone's microphones. Siri, though she might sound friendly and trustworthy enough, can't really keep a secret. She sends all of the audio she hears to cloud servers, where it is processed and can be archived for up to two years.
To be fair to Siri, Apple's not the only company doing the sharing. Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and even Mattel's Hello Barbie interactive doll all send whatever we say into the ether.
At Microsoft, speech data, which it receives via its interactive voice response systems, Cortana mobile assistant, Xbox videogame console, Bing search engine, and Ford SYNC in-car infotainment system, occupies one of the largest clouds in the company's vast network. We can only assume that the same would hold true at Apple, Google, and Nuance Communications.
It's a trade-off we have to make in our new hyper-connected world. But many consumers might not know that such practices are going on, and that has some privacy experts worried.
The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), for example, has asked the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice to look into some of the always-on consumer devices that routinely record and store private communications.
In its letter to the two agencies, EPIC raised the issue that these devices "that surreptitiously record the communications of consumers in their homes" could "constitute unlawful surveillance under federal wiretap law."
EPIC singled out Samsung's Smart TV; Google's Chromium browser; Hello Barbie; the Microsoft Kinect system now installed in its Xbox videogame consoles; Amazon's voice-activated computer program, Alexa, that powers its Echo device; Nest Labs, a Google-owned company that makes Internet-connected thermostats, smoke detectors, and security cameras; and Canary Connect, which also makes Internet-connected home security systems. But it noted that the number of such devices is growing rapidly.
"Americans do not expect that the devices in their homes will persistently record everything they say. By introducing always-on voice recording into ordinary consumer products, such as computers, televisions, and toys, companies are listening to consumers in their most private spaces. It is unreasonable to expect consumers to monitor their every word in front of their home electronics. It is also genuinely creepy," the EPIC letter asserted.
In their defense, most of these products are not always listening, but are activated by wake-up words; they don't stream users' voices to company servers all day long, their vendors say.
The companies also assert that they are only using the stored audio to improve their services. Still, for all the utterances they have on file, and despite all of the advances they have made to vastly improve speech recognition, they have a lot more work to do.