Ok, Google, How Can I Protect My Privacy?

Google home device personal assistant privacy

These days, the government is far from the only source of potential surveillance. The growth of IoT devices and the cloud have revolutionized the way many people interact with technology. How many of us could fathom life without a smartphone? But that easy access to directions to the park and restaurant reviews at our fingertips comes at a price – our privacy. Online advertisers are tracking user behavior and collecting data like never before. Smartphone apps provide convenience, but users are often unaware of how much data they give away.

Take Uber, the ride-sharing app that is disrupting taxi and chauffer services worldwide. According to a recent article in the New York Times, Uber allegedly continued to track iPhones of users who had deleted the Uber app, which violated the terms of service of Apple’s app store. Then there’s the recent legislation that overturned Obama-era consumer privacy protections, which means that your browsing history could potentially be sold to data brokers by your internet service provider. And over the years, as users became savvier and enterprising developers created add-ons to protect privacy, companies have resorted to using “super cookies” that are not easily removed and track a user’s movement around the web.

Now, Burger King has extended the reach of its digital advertising campaign to the analog sphere by incorporating the wake words of the Google Home device into an ad campaign. The privacy concerns surrounding “always on” devices like Amazon’s Alexa on the Echo and Google Home are numerous, including how the devices record audio input and what it records, how secure it is in transit and in the cloud, and some of legal problems that have arisen because of these recordings. But this new mode of advertising makes it that much harder for consumers to protect their privacy and freedom from unwanted advertising. Not only are companies using the wake words in video ads, but now it appears that Google is incorporating advertising into the functionality of the Google Home device. Soon, we might all live in a perpetual advertising echo chamber, lost in a sea of companies competing for microseconds of consumer attention.

Nevertheless, some companies seem to be paying attention to the problem of privacy in IoT products. Apple has recently  announced a number of new products and software improvements including the new HomePod, enhanced MacBook laptops and the 10.5 inch iPad Pro. While these products are very different among each other, they all seem to have a common denominator: attention to user online privacy and security.

The new Safari browser comes with different built-in features, including: i) the option of using DuckDuckGo, a search engine that does not track the user browsing history and does not store user personal information; ii) sandboxing, that provides built-in protection against malicious code and malware by controlling the actions that websites can take; iii) Intelligent Tracking Prevention a technology that not only blocks third-party cookies but it also prevents cross-site tracking (see https://webkit.org/blog/7675/intelligent-tracking-prevention/ for more details about it).

The HomePod speaker is the Apple new home assistant that promises to deliver a great music experience by adjusting the sound based on the shape and size of the room it is on. Siri technology has been enhanced to handle advanced searches within the music library. Most importantly, the HomePod will not be sending any information to Apple servers before Siri it is called by the user with the typical expression “Hey Siri”; and any information collected will be encrypted and sent using an anonymous Siri identifier.

The new iOS 11 comes with interesting security settings: for example, it allows users to restrict the use of their location data for any app on the phone. This is very important, specifically considering that some application have been known to force users to grant them access to their location even when the app is not being used.

If Apple sets a new privacy standard for these products, we may expect  soon a response from its competitors. And competition for consumers may result in more privacy concerned products.