Microphones in
our house

No one bats an eye at self inflicted surveillance

*We are in the middle of the decade of “smart devices”. Everything around us is becoming infused with ai [[johannesisphording-writings/articles/artificial-intelligence|artificial-intelligence]] making it supposedly “intelligent” without us questioning whether this is actually necessary. There are devices and scenarios, where this makes sense, such as the intelligent loudspeakers from Amazon and Google, with which we can already achieve some of the things we only know from Star Trek. But unlike the always-listening computer from the science fiction series, I have a bad feeling about the real “smart” speakers listening in on every word we say.

Call me paranoid, but I’m not quite ready to put a microphone-equipped speaker in my home. For the same reason that I don’t use a smart surveillance camera. For me, both are too much of an invasion of my privacy and an abuse of trust. This is not because I am against the technology per se, but because in the current climate of hyper capitalism that has productized every facet of our behaviour I am not willing to give up the last corners in my home that I actually can control.

I do not want guests at my home to have to watch what they say or how they behave just because there’s a camera or microphone nearby. It doesn’t matter if the devices are activated and recording, but everyone knows the eerie feeling of sitting below surveillance cameras and wondering if they are recording or not.

When the first smartphones where introduced and getting traction, people on the train or in public spaces often wondered whether the stranger next to you was taking a photo or just texting someone with their smartphone. This thought has long faded into the background and we have simply accepted this possibility of having our photo taken at every corner. While being photographed, filmed and harassed with those recordings is itself a topic for another article, I am convinced thanks to anti social media [[anti-social-media]], that the vast majority of people only ever take photos of themselves or their food.

But microphones that can always listen in go one step further. Being in the same room as one of these speakers constantly raises the question: Why would anyone put a microphone-equipped, internet-connected device in their home that is constantly listening in?

Time and again, we read in the news about companies being hacked and data leaks being discovered or forcefully opened up somewhere. The companies concerned always happen to be somehow clueless and promise that it won’t happen again. Thank you too, it’s “reassuring” to know! But the data is already in circulation.

We can’t really estimate what impact such data theft will have on us personally, but I’m sure that the cases will have a major impact overall. Perhaps not directly on us personally, but the example of Facebook/Cambridge Analytica Netflix: The Great Hack 1 has finally brought the issue the wider public attention it deserves.

Because the most important point that many people keep forgetting is that the data is not just stored on a server somewhere, but that the companies earn money from it. Facebook and Google in particular, two companies that offer their core services free of charge, make millions in profits year after year with the data they generously receive from us.

If you combine this mass of data with modern algorithms, you can see that you don’t need a corresponding entry for every data point in order to fill gaps in the data with a high degree of accuracy.

If we have not filled a data point ourselves, then someone from our immediate environment or at least from the same social milieu has certainly done so and this knowledge can also be applied to us.

The amount of data that can be recorded with a microphone that is always ready to record everything in our vicinity is exponentially greater than what we enter into any online text fields. Although the manufacturers of these speakers tell us that they do not record what is being said, but only switch on as soon as a corresponding command is spoken, the possibility that this could happen remains. Even if the manufacturers of these devices are not accused of any malice, the connection to the Internet alone is a security vulnerability. Just as laptop cameras can be switched on with the help of simple programs and the right IP address without the viewer noticing, it is only a matter of time before this feature becomes available for smart speakers.

Anyone who has ever received Instagram or Facebook adverts for something they were just talking about will know the uneasy feeling that something has been intercepted (Although most of the time the amount of data we give the algorithms with our usage alone is sufficient for that without listening in).

In addition, I am currently still asking myself what added value the smart speakers actually bring us. According to a Bloomberg Article2 about 15-25% of Amazon Echo Users stop using their device after two weeks. At the moment, our own smart speaker, which we have in a meeting room under a glass bell in the office, is not more than a gadget we sometimes use to control a music playlist from afar. As with so many technologies, this is probably simply because we are still at a very early stage in the product cycle and there is still a lot to be done to make those gizmos actually useable. For now, however, it looks like almost everything the smart speaker can do works faster and more clearly with classic buttons.

In addition, I remain sceptical simply due to the fact that the speakers have a certain manufacturer bias and I get different results everywhere, just like when using search engines.

It will be interesting to see what kind of advertising awaits us via these devices. How much personalization can we accept as users before we start to mistrust these devices? The first thing that comes to mind is the completely over-the-top radio adverts that we expect when the radio is switched on. But if the smart speaker starts blaring into my kitchen every thirty minutes and asks me if I want to order something from Amazon, then I won’t be the owner of this speaker for much longer.

There is a reason why these devices are “smart” and not “intelligent”. On the one hand, “smart” is not quite as important as “intelligent” and on the other, the word always has a slightly negative, perhaps even sleazy connotation, as it always makes us think of bankers, management consultants and really dumb smartphones.


  1. Netflix Documentary: The Great Hack 

  2. Bloomberg: Article