Business Technology

Sunday 23 July 2017

Adrian Weckler: Our dystopian biometric future

Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon has already ruled on companies’ demands for our biometric information
Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon has already ruled on companies’ demands for our biometric information
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

There are two phrases I have to avoid uttering when talking about smart technology on radio or TV. One is 'hey Siri' and the other is 'okay Google'. Each sets off the iPhones or Android phones of listeners.

But Burger King went one better last week. It created a TV ad deliberately designed to set off voice-activation gadgets.

The ad showed a young Burger King employee talking directly into the camera. "Okay Google, what is the Whopper burger?" he said.

It was designed to trigger off devices such as the Google Home gadget, which 'listen' for voice commands continuously.

Triggered devices in living rooms would then read out Wikipedia's entry page for the Whopper which - coincidentally -would be edited to consist of a suspiciously commercial-sounding definition.

("The Whopper is a burger, consisting of a flame-grilled patty made with 100pc beef with no preservatives or fillers...")

It was a sneaky, clever advertising stunt. Unfortunately for Burger King, it backfired when Google, fearing a backlash from its own customers, disabled the phrase from triggering its devices.

But the episode is a reminder of how powerful and potentially invasive voice-activation technology is becoming. We're only about two or three years away from natural language becoming a mainstream way of running our phones and computers. And we're no more than five or six years - 10 at the outer limit - from home appliances being controlled by our voices.

"Lights on."

"Lock the front door."

"Turn the heating up two degrees."

"Turn the kettle on."

You may think that this sounds like a scene from Star Trek with Captain Picard. But it's almost already here. Soon, natural language commands that can be picked up from across a room will advance the process even further.

With it, cultural ideas around privacy may evolve even further than they have in the last 10 years.

Measurable and identifiable, our voices will become a commodity. It will start with advertising but will escalate pretty quickly after that.

While most of us would be pretty annoyed if our phone or smart home device started routinely spewing ads at us, we might compromise quite quickly. What if it was part of a cut-price subscription? Or even a free one, like Facebook or online news?

This could happen. The US has just rolled back laws that prevent internet service providers selling customer data to advertisers.

While the EU has taken a harder stance on issues such as net neutrality, Ireland and the UK are often closer in consumer sensibilities to the US than to France or Germany. And with the UK now to leave the EU (and its privacy laws), we could be surrounded by overwhelming commercial interests.

Even within a strict European regulatory environment, companies are allowed to get underneath our skin.

I mean this literally. In Ireland, companies are now allowed to require biometric information - such as fingerprints or eye retina scans - from people entering their premises.

Our Data Protection Commissioner, Helen Dixon, ruled as much last week. In a case involving a contractor working for a tech company, a fingerprint was required for the contractor to gain entry to work. The company also requested, and held, the worker's passport. While the company got a slap on the wrist for not informing the worker in advance, asking for the fingerprint was deemed okay.

Even if the conditions of this biometric registration for workers are that the data isn't transferred to third parties or stored for other purposes, we know how easily hacked many companies are. (The DPC's own 2016 annual report said there were over 2,000 data breaches last year, of which almost 200 were security-related or theft.)

It can only be a matter of time before our fingerprints, voice waves and retina scans are stolen and traded on the Dark Web, exactly the way credit card details and IP addresses are now.

I can already see the groundwork being laid for this in some tech multinational companies around Dublin. Many now have the kind of security identification checks normally reserved for border controls and customs.

Several require official identification documents - such as a passport or driver's licence - to be presented to proceed past reception. Security personnel routinely stare at visitors.

One of the largest social media companies, which has a growing office in Dublin, has burly security guards that come over to warn you if you do not keep your temporary visitor's badge on. (I've tested this, taking it on and off, just to see what the henchmen would do. I didn't get kicked out, but was told several times it would be a "problem" if I didn't keep it on.)

The point about this is that it's becoming a normal experience. American tech companies want more and more control of our lives. And we're giving it over to them, not even slowly.

I once looked at the Joaquin Phoenix movie Her and thought that people walking around talking to their devices would never happen. We would be too self-conscious. I was dead wrong.

Walk down any city street and you'll see people talking at devices. While it's mostly to other people right now, soon it will be to robots and artificial intelligence systems, which are currently taking over customer call centre operations.

Facebook knows all of this. So does Google, which is why its voice technology is being pulled irresistibly towards building up profiles on us to support its advertising business.

So we probably can't blame Burger King for trying to game our Android phones. Over the next year, I'll be expecting a lot more of it.

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