The Next Big Tech Battle Will Be Over Privacy

With its acquisition of privacy-focused AI startup Silk Labs, Apple is betting it knows what consumers really want in their smart tech. Google and Amazon beg to differ.

Smart speaker, iPhone and privacy?
Natasha Stokes
By Natasha Stokes

Apple is positioning itself as the big privacy-friendly tech giant. Its most recent move: bringing in-house Silk Labs, a startup developing AI technology that processes data on devices instead of cloud servers. That’s of especial significance in the burgeoning smart home hub space, where privacy concerns abound with always-on, AI-powered speakers like Google Home and Amazon’s Echo devices, which send audio recordings back to corporate servers for processing.

Some time back, Silk Labs was in the process of developing a smart home hub equipped with a camera that could learn to recognise what people were doing. All the necessary processing would have been done on-device via a proprietary platform called Silk, negating the potential privacy issues with such comprehensive, intimate data being processed on a company’s servers. The speaker never made it to market – but one could imagine how similar tech might work with Apple’s own HomePod, which does happen to be somewhat less privacy-unfriendly than its peers (though that may not be saying a whole lot).

Certainly Apple has been brewing its privacy rep for some time now – Safari doesn’t associate browsing data with IP addresses, while the most recent iOS and MacOS versions feature anti-fingerprinting technology that prevents tracking software from identifying users’ devices based on their browser configuration (Safari only). CEO Tim Cook has been vocal about his support for a US version of Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation and the company is keen to publicize that its business model is not based on ad targeting but on hardware sales.

In regards to the HomePod, voice commands are sent to Apple servers for analysis and response, linked only to a random, anonymised ID. After six months, these requests are unlinked from their random ID, and saved for a further year and a half before deletion. In contrast, Google and Amazon link voice recordings to users’ identifiable accounts, and delete only on request.

Of course, the cost of privacy is often convenience – HomePod users can’t install add-ons like Alexa Skills or Google Actions to, say, use Spotify or call an Uber (Spotify has to be played on a HomePod via AirPlay connection).

Google and Amazon are still betting that convenience is what users really want. Back in March, the New York Times highlighted a number of patent applications made by the big G and A that included such not-creepy-at-all technologies as a “voice sniffer algorithm” to analyse audio upon detection of words such as “love”, “dislike” or “bought”. One application that apparently aimed to personalise content for people while respecting their privacy involved analysing someone’s medical condition based on “coughing, sneezing and so forth”. Finally, a definition of ironic everyone can agree on.

Patent applications are very often filed in order to explore new technology, but considering Google’s targeted advertising revenue makes up 85% of its parent company’s revenue, and Amazon’s second-quarter $2.5 billion profit includes a doubling of its ad revenue, it’s hard to imagine that the revelations hidden within the sounds of everyday life won’t someday be leveraged by these companies. All in the name of a faster, more convenient experience, of course.

Do we care? Here are some stats: Apple commands a single-digit percentage of global market share in the smart speaker space; as of mid-year, Google and Amazon had approximately 32% and 25% of that market cornered. Smart speakers are booming, and the convenience of getting Alexa to play that Discover Weekly playlist seems to outweigh any concerns with Amazon recording all that audio.

However, the times may soon be a-changing. Following a year of privacy breaches and scandals at the behemoth tech services we use every day (Facebook, Google, Instagram, Facebook again), consumers are growing more concerned with data privacy. Some people value it more than their wallet, car, phone or house keys, and Americans rate data privacy as more important than healthcare.

In a year, maybe two, what might we be looking for in the intelligent, listening, watching technology we’ll be inviting into our homes? Apple seems to be betting on privacy for that next generation of devices. We should double down on that.