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Hey Siri, who else is listening?

When many people place their phone on a table, they put them face down. Why? Because they don’t want you to see messages from their friends, family or secret lover.

Although I don’t tend to do this, I understand people’s desire for privacy. However, new concepts like voice search are impeding our ability to control our privacy – there is no equivalent of putting it face down. So what are the implications of voice search on our privacy?

As I see it, privacy falls into two categories of responsibility, data and personal.

  • Data privacy concerns what happens to your request when you use the service: Where your request goes, who has access to the data and where it goes after that.
  • Personal privacy refers to the parts of your conversations heard by random strangers you walk past on the way to work, or sit next to on the bus.

A lot of articles have been written about corporate privacy, that third party companies like Apple or Google can have “legitimate” access to audio snippets of your requests on their devices (iPhone’s Siri or Google Home) for analysis, and that your audio requests are stored by the providers for up to two years after being recorded.

The data privacy concern here is serious – if audio can be paired up with a device ID, your privacy is in serious doubt.

But here, I’m more interested in the more mundane type of privacy, personal.

Many of us have heard conversations, hilarious or concerning, that weren’t meant for our ears. I’ve recently discovered “Overheard in Waitrose” facebook page which contains some hilarious quotes such as “Darling, do we need parmesan for both houses?” and “Lucas, put the falafel down, you already chose olives as treat”

Although it’s more of a personal preference rather than a significant security requirement, I prefer to keep most of my conversations private, and try to avoid talking at a volume you can’t help but overhear. I’m not keen on people listening in to my commands to Siri or Google, asking them to “Remind me to buy more caviar for the yacht” or “Tell my fluffy bunnykins that I wuv her”.

So do I use voice commands in places where I can’t be overheard, such as in the car or at home?

My experience of voice search in the car is patchy at best, either due to road noise or the need to concentrate so hard on how to ask a question in such a way as to get the phone to give the answer I actually want that I stop looking at the road.

When I’m at home I tend to have my hands free to do the searching, and find it quicker and more accurate to do so.

In my experience, voice search is not private or intelligent enough to be a viable replacement for textual search, and many data security questions remain unanswered.

For now I think I’ll stick with good old fashioned typing.

I’ve got plenty to say

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