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BILL KILFOIL: Eavesdropping gone gaga: the Google Home invasion

Both explicitly and implicitly, we allow intrusions unimaginable to George Orwell, and despite our protests, it’s pretty clear we’ve conceded any prospect of confidentiality, writes Bill Killfoil.
Both explicitly and implicitly, we allow intrusions unimaginable to George Orwell, and despite our protests, it’s pretty clear we’ve conceded any prospect of confidentiality, writes Bill Killfoil. - Reuters

Recently, my son (a technological wizard adept in all aspects of cyber-gadgetry), along with his wife and their three children, stopped by for a Sunday afternoon visit.

Their baby is about 18 months old and just beginning to learn a few words. Apparently, babies tend to first learn simple words they hear most often in their home environment, especially if they are enunciated clearly and slowly.

So far our granddaughter can say “Mama,” “Dada,” and “A-Goog” (Hey, Google). This is not a word of a lie. These are her first words – Mom and Dad and Hey, Google. God help us.

That same evening, I was next door visiting my neighbour – an older Nova Scotian like me. Our dialogue lubricated by John Jameson, we were sitting in the living room, chewing the fat. In the course of our conversation, we were talking about recent news items, including the Brexit debacle and the particular problems it poses for Northern Ireland. We were wondering about the number of people who lived in this part of the U.K. Neither of us was sure, so to demonstrate my worldliness and technological sophistication, I suggested we could just ask Google and I went digging in my pocket for my iPhone.

But I wasn’t quick enough. As soon as I uttered the words “ask Google,” a very loud but otherwise pleasant female voice emanated from under the coffee table. There were only two of us in the room (or so I thought) and I wasn’t expecting to hear from a third party. I was so startled I thought I might soil my boxers, but the danger soon passed and an omniscient female voice revealed that “the website World Population Review indicates that Northern Ireland has 1.8 million people, approximately 30 per cent of Ireland’s total population and approximately three per cent of the population of the United Kingdom.”

Did I need any help with anything else?

Orwell had no idea

After checking for any gastro-intestinal malfunctions and gathering my composure, I remembered that my neighbour had recently purchased a Google Home gizmo. But I was completely unaware that the thing was alive, awake, conscious, paying attention, and hanging on to my every word. I (perhaps naïvely) found this realization unsettling. I squirmed when I comprehended that the damn thing was listening and scrutinizing everything I said, and every sound I made, since I came through the front door an hour before.

What were the limitations of Google’s omnipotence? How penetrating her powerful ear? Did Google hear me clear my throat while I was ringing the doorbell – out there on the front step, did I mutter anything under my breath, and did I make any noises associated with digestion – gurgling or worse?

After pondering these questions and after having learned about Northern Ireland from an unexpected source, my neighbour and I regrouped and resumed our conversation.

But even with the help of JJ, I found it hard to relax. Google had interrupted us so suddenly, so unexpectedly and so intrusively that I was still nervous about what had happened. I got the feeling the thing on the coffee table might not only be listening, but watching me, too, evaluating and recording my every move. For the remainder of my visit, I tried to avoid picking my nose or scratching myself and I was careful not to ask about personal matters. The rest of the usually pleasant visit had an ominous “Big Brother” feel to it. Orwell had no idea.

A couple of days after the Google Home Invasion incident, I was (on the advice of a colleague who swears it is much cheaper) online, attempting to buy a pair of prescription eyeglasses. I never did go through with the purchase, but ever since I tried, I am bombarded with advertisements from Clearly (the eyeglass company) on every website I visit. The ads, like Mary’s lamb, follow me everywhere I go.

Telling a (younger) friend about this, I was reminded that I’m a bit of a tech dinosaur, out of touch with the world of personal-data mining and directed intrusions. Apparently, the technologically astute know all about this business of targeted advertising, the abuses and misuses of Bookface, the relentless surveillance of the internet, and all the rest. These are not discretionary digital coincidences. It’s all part of the apparatus of covert cyber reconnaissance.

I started reading a bit about these intrusions (online of course, right beside the Clearly ads). Apparently, if you’re over 65 and you ask Google what time it is, later that afternoon you’ll get an email from Walmart telling you about special pricing on four-foot wall clocks. Or if you’re talking to your wife on your iPhone and you tell her about a house for sale in the neighbourhood, in a couple of days you’ll get a call from a real estate agent asking whether you are thinking about selling. And if you sneeze or cough out loud while you are reading this online material, you can anticipate a pop-up advertisement for Buckley's Mixture (It tastes awful, but it works).

Insurance companies want access to our Fitbit data so they can adjust premiums, shopping-mall cameras can now recognize our faces, Amazon (Am-is-on) is an expert on our personal interests and consumer habits, Bookface, a behemoth that knows more about us than we know ourselves, has the evidence of our behaviours for sale, LinkedIn has several jobs waiting for us, if we watch a YouTube video called Health-Care in America we might get a redacted email from Individual-One warning us about the dangers of socialism.

So my advice is deactivate your smart doorbell, throw your Fitbit in the harbour, discard your Bluetooth ear buds, and if you want to talk to your wife about anything personal, go to the far corner of the garage and whisper quietly – or work out some system of sign language.

Expectation of solitude conceded

Both explicitly and implicitly, we allow intrusions unimaginable to George Orwell, and despite our protests, it’s pretty clear we’ve conceded any prospect of confidentiality, and to some extent waived our right to complain.

But I don’t think we should give up on it. The whole abandoning privacy trend is disconcerting. (As when someone with otherwise sound judgment puts Pepsi in Irish whiskey – it’s an indignity that’s hard to overlook.)

The reality is that sometimes Google (and others) are there with us, whether we know it or not, and whether we like it or not. Sometimes you just take another sip, assume a vacant look and retire to the privacy of your mind – any expectation of solitude conceded, any hope of discretion abandoned.

The next time I went next door for a visit, I was suspiciously aware of that little white tower on the coffee table. I kept looking at it out of the corner of my eye. It appeared dormant, but I wasn’t going to be fooled again.

I thought I might get used to it so that I could ask some questions. But so far, I just can’t bring myself to look at that thing and say, “Hey, Google” – an utterance that is no trouble at all for a beautiful 18-month-old girl. But then again, probably not all 18-month-old girls can say “A-Goog” – all of our grandchildren are well above average.

William J. Kilfoil lives in Mineville.

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