Do Siri, Alexa & Google Record You? – Spotlight #303

Good Monday morning. It’s July 29th and a big week for pop culture watchers: Shark Week, the NFL exhibition season, and two nights of Democratic candidate debates are all scheduled for the next 100 hours. 

Today’s Spotlight takes about 5 minutes to read.

2. News To Know Now

1. Facebook’s five billion dollar FTC fine over user privacy is the largest ever, but is effectively a slap on the wrist that represents about a month of revenue. Analysts argue about how much Facebook executives will be held accountable for future violations. Zuck’s post.

2.  Representative Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) filed a $50 million lawsuit against Google alleging that the search giant censored her by suspending her advertising account following the first presidential debates. Google claims her account tripped automated systems and was restored. My question after reading the filing is why Gabbard’s advertising team didn’t already have their big campaign planned out with a Google rep. It’s also fair to ask why they are complaining that their fundraising emails are being classified as spam in a totally unrelated action. Court filing here.

3.  A researcher using Newspapers.com led to an Axios story Sunday, surmising that Senator Amy Klobuchar, another presidential candidate, might be ambushing fellow candidate Joe Biden with his past positions. Axios determined that a Klobuchar researcher shares a last name with someone on Newspapers who highlighted past Biden positions. After a reporter asked for comment, the account was made private. I’m an avid genealogist and learned about this years ago when my clippings from the service became public. I immediately switched to private, but here’s my 2015 clipping from The Brooklyn Daily Eagle about my grandfather and namesake who was a winner of a student essay contest in 1930.

3.  Alexa, Siri, and Google Record You. Facebook (probably) doesn’t.

Companies offering smart speakers will tell you that engineers continually work on improving the software. We reported last week that Amazon acknowledged storing voice recordings “indefinitely”. Now a whistleblower tells The Guardian that contractors working for Apple “regularly” hear confidential conversations including those with physicians, at workplaces, or even during sex. 

Smart watches, phones, and other devices that listen for a “wake word” are exposed to more conversations than traditional smart speakers. But wake words are notoriously broad and can sometimes be triggered by music or television playing in the background. Or you could also be the young woman named Alexa Seary (pronounced ‘siri’) featured in this article in early 2017.

One theory bandied about online is that Facebook also records user voices although no researcher or engineer has ever found evidence of Facebook doing that outside of smart speakers it sells. Users persist in spreading this conspiracy theory, however, without recognizing that Facebook has their phone data, their chat data, and their own words typed neatly into the system without the need for voice recognition. Throw in our favorite “data-authenticates-data” saying and it’s clear that Facebook doesn’t need to record anyone. More than 15% of the planet’s population is helping Facebook make decisions about what you want to see. Why record people in a world where predictive analytics are so robust? 

Getting your hands on the recordings from the other companies is pretty easy. Keeping smart speakers out of your life, including the people with whom you interact is entirely another thing.

Click to hear your Alexa recordings

Click to hear your Google recordings

Apple doesn’t have a user-friendly way, but this is the oft-agreed path:  
1. Turn off Siri active listening.
2. Turn off Voice Dictation (Settings > General > Keyboard ), swipe down, and turn off the “Enable Dictation” 

4.  Google Helping People with Disabilities; Domino’s Not So Much

Google and The Reeves Foundation launched a program to give 100,000 people living with paralysis a free Google Home mini smart speaker. This is the positive side of smart speakers in our society.  Apply here to learn more and receive one.

Google also announced its free Sound Amplifier app for Android devices. Quoting them, “When you plug in your headphones and use Sound Amplifier, you can customize frequencies to augment important sound, like the voices of the people you are with, and filter out background noise. It can help you hear conversations in noisy restaurants more clearly, amplify the sound coming from TV at personalized frequency levels without bothering others, or boost the voices of presenters at a lecture.” 

You can download the app free at Google Play.

Domino’s is taking heat, meanwhile, for its continued legal fight in what could be a landmark case for website accessibility guidelines. 

“The ADA says nothing about the accessibility of websites or applications on smartphones, whether standing alone or in connection with restaurants, stores, or any other brick-and-mortar establishments that qualify as public accommodations,” wrote a Domino’s attorney quoted by The Washington Post. Thankfully, an appellate court disagreed and referred the case back.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Retail Federation are backing Domino’s. Feel free to complain loudly and often to all three about their involvement. The gist: a blind Domino’s customer could not order online using a computer or mobile device and was ineligible for online-only special discounts.

Our take: we always advise clients about this issue because it’s important. The National Federation for the Blind won a similar suit against Target in 2006. Read about that case here.

5. Debugged: iCivics

Instead of debunking an online conspiracy theory this week, we’re going to let you do the legwork while playing the free and addictive game, Newsfeed Defenders, from iCivics. You’ll play a character who has to investigate and post social media items while balancing the site’s revenue, traffic, and integrity.

Play here. You’re welcome.

6. Also in the Spotlight

Faceapp, the software everyone used to age their pictures, is still (most likely) not a Russian spy program.  We told you that last week as well as telling you that the app had been viral before. The good folks at Statista and Priori Data dug into the whole thing and found about 30 million app downloads. That’s viral.

Read their analysis here.

7. Food for Thought: The fake Presidential Seal

By now, you’ve all heard that someone hustling for a presidential visit pulled the wrong image off the Internet and caused the president to speak in front of a satirical presidential seal.

Stuff happens when you’re rushing. But bad stuff also happens when you use other people’s work without attribution. There are dozens of legitimate, authorized places to get a free download of the U.S. presidential seal. They all take a little bit more time to navigate than Google or Bing’s images, but this person would still have their job today if they had downloaded an image from the White House’s website.

Talk it over: How do you create a culture in your organization that demands that people source information because you need to know if the eagle on your seal is clutching golf clubs?  It’s a serious issue that is getting worse by the day with advances in AI.

8. Protip:  Google Sheets – view cell history

We’ve all overwritten a spreadsheet cell and had to determine whether it was worse loading the backup file and redoing the work or trying to quickly find the cell’s contents again. Google’s taken a better step in creating a live history of anything that was previously in a cell. Right-click on any cell to see the previous values and who changed it. I can’t help you if one of those previous cell values is “Arrgggh, I hate this stupid report.”

9. Great Data: Cinemaps

People have been marveling at Andrew DeGraff’s Cinemaps for years. If you haven’t had the pleasure yet, the catchily-named images are maps of movie settings from lots of blockbusters. DeGraff has a new book out with his designs. Enjoy the whimsical ways that this artist conveys information.

The detail on Back to the Future is incredible.

10. Coffee Break: Ford’s Noise Canceling Doghouse

How do you test your soundproofing on a core product? Sure, with science, but also with dogs. 

Check out Ford’s noise canceling kennel project.

Thanks for reading. Have a great week.

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