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The decade Big Brother came home: How tech giants persuaded us to buy products that track us at home – CNBC

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George Orwell’s classic novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four” warned us of a dystopian future where mass surveillance and spying are rampant, with all information flowing to an all-seeing, omnipresent figure called “Big Brother.”

But Orwell never imagined that consumers would invite Big Brother into their homes.

The last 10 years have seen the rise of internet-connected security cameras, smart speakers, doorbells, light bulbs, thermostats, vacuums and baby monitors from tech giants including Amazon, Google, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft.

Smart home devices have seen steady sales growth each year since 2016, according to market research firm IDC, which began tracking the category that year. The firm projects the devices to continue selling at a rapid clip in 2019 and over the next four years. Smart speakers and security cameras are among the most popular category.

This means consumers in this decade have filled their homes with sensors, cameras and microphones. But they have few tools to control how and when these devices collect images, conversations or any other data about them, and few laws effectively restrict how this data can be used.

Welcome, Alexa

Smart home devices weren’t invented in the last decade. Tech companies have been trying to push home automation since the 1990s or earlier.

But the smartphone revolution led to rapid miniaturization of technology and a rapid decrease in pricing. That paved the way for the so-called “internet of things”: the idea of embedding chips, sensors, cameras and network connectors in everyday objects, enabling them to send and receive data. IoT applications took off among businesses first but failed to resonate with consumers for many years.

At the same time, advances in artificial intelligence made it easier and cheaper for computers to understand and respond to voice commands.

These trends came together in 2014, when Amazon launched its Echo device with its digital assistant, Alexa. It became a cultural phenomenon as sales took off, and Amazon soon expanded its lineup of voice-activated devices beyond the smart speaker to things like wireless earbuds and microwaves. Amazon said in January it has sold more than 100 million Alexa-enabled devices, while a separate report from Consumer Intelligence Research Partners found Amazon’s Echo controls 70% of the smart speaker market.

An Amazon Echo Dot device

Patrick T. Fallon | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Voice-activated devices created a much more compelling reason for users to allow tech giants into their homes. A 2018 study from NPR and Edison Research found 64% of participants purchased a smart speaker specifically to control other smart home devices.

For many, the convenience of asking their smart speaker to turn on the lights, lock the door or open the blinds became too appealing to pass up, kicking off an arms race among companies to integrate their AI assistants in as many smart home products as possible.

Suddenly, smart home devices weren’t just experiments in research labs or prototypes that “early adopters tinkered with,” said Florian Schaub, a University of Michigan professor who has conducted research on consumer attitudes around digital assistants. Today, smart speakers, locks and thermostats have become as easy to use as the smartphone.

“You can go into a big box store and buy lots of and lots of smart home connected devices that just function and don’t require much technical expertise,” Schaub said. “It has become a big business and market for many companies.”

Surveillance capitalism

As sales grew, tales of privacy nightmares grew with them.

A 2017 murder case in Arkansas ignited a debate around whether data from smart home devices should be allowed as evidence in court after police asked Amazon to turn over information from the suspect’s Echo. IRobot‘s Roomba vacuums raised concerns of data sharing after CEO Colin Angle discussed the possibility of asking users for permission to share maps of their homes with tech companies.

In 2018, users were unnerved when Amazon’s Alexa started laughing at them unexpectedly and when a stranger hacked into a Google Nest camera and started talking through it to a Houston woman’s infant son.

In 2019, users learned that people working for Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple were listening to their conversations. Representatives from Amazon and Microsoft said the companies review a small percentage of deidentified users’ voice recordings and that they’ve introduced new tools to give users greater control over their interactions with digital assistants. A spokesperson for Google pointed to the company’s privacy page, in which it said it has made efforts to reduce how much Google Assistant data it collects. Facebook and Apple didn’t respond to requests for comment.

In another case this year, a poorly protected Nest camera allowed a hacker to spout fake nuclear bomb threats at a California woman. Nest also attracted criticism after it failed to disclose a built-in microphone in the Nest Secure home security system. Then there was the revelation that Amazon’s Ring division supplies police departments with footage from its security cameras, often without consent from its users.

In a statement, a Google spokeswoman said attacks like the nuclear bomb threats were a result of credential stuffing, which occurs when a bad actor uses stolen information to access poorly secured accounts. The spokeswoman added that the company is introducing new Nest security features in the coming weeks.

A Ring spokesperson said the company has taken steps to limit how much information is shared with police departments from the Neighbors app, which lets users post photos and videos of crime activity in their neighborhood.

From the start, privacy advocates have warned of the dangers associated with these devices, not just because they’re embedded with cameras and microphones but because of the vast troves of data they routinely gather.

Devices like an Amazon Echo, Google Home or Amazon Ring security camera can track where you go, how many people live in your household, what your interests are and what you’re buying. The companies say that detailed information is often used to improve the user experience by reducing pain points like a wrong answer from the Google Assistant, or adding helpful suggestions, such as local traffic alerts based on your schedule.

Analysts say one of the many places Apple can still succeed is in smart home technology, like the Nest, a brand of Google that consists of smart home products, such as thermostats, smoke detectors and security systems including smart doorbells and smart locks. Ironically, the Nest brand name was originally owned by Nest Labs, co-founded in 2010 by former Apple engineers.

David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

But some privacy activists and experts are concerned about the rise of so-called surveillance capitalism, in which tech companies treat private interactions as raw data to predict behaviors. The laws governing how tech companies use the information are weak, particularly in the U.S., and enforcement often amounts to a slap on the wrist, with fines that are tiny compared with the tech giants’ overall revenues. If the data is poorly secured and gets into the hands of a bad actor, suddenly strangers and criminals could have access to a wealth of personal information — far beyond email addresses and internet passwords.

In the past, users might have thought they were just a “cog in the machine” whose individual activity went unnoticed, but recent privacy failures have proven otherwise, said Jen King, director of consumer privacy at Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society.

“Users have learned that they are of particular interest to these companies,” King said.

The privacy failures have not inspired people to dump their Echos and Google Homes en masse.

Instead, some consumers have adjusted how they use the devices. Some have also adopted what King calls “strategies of resistance,” like using camera covers for extra privacy or changing their device settings to limit data collection.

Additionally, many consumers don’t understand how much data these devices collect. Others are unhappy with how smart devices monitor and track them, but they’re resigned to the fact that they have little control over the process.

“As a consumer, you can either use these technologies and benefit from the convenience, or you can opt out entirely due to privacy concerns,” Michigan’s Schaub said. “There’s very little opportunity to engage somewhere in the middle.”

Calls for more control

In response to the privacy blunders in recent years, many consumers have tried to educate themselves on exactly what these devices are collecting.

Often, they’re discovering this is impossible.

Terms of service agreements are lengthy and time-consuming to parse through, while much of the language used is too dense to understand. It’s unrealistic to expect that users are capable of managing every interaction they have with their devices, especially since much of that data is transferred off their device and to the cloud, where users have little say on what happens next.

“Even those of us who are fully technically capable and have the time, understanding and willpower to make it a priority, those agreements are one-sided agreements,” said Daniel Kahn Gillmor, internet security technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union. “If the agreement says we will share your usage information with third-party partners, I know what that means, but that doesn’t mean I consent to it.”

Tech companies have taken some proactive steps in light of the consumer outrage around privacy. Many have become more explicit about how they use and retain sensitive information, including Nest, which issued a plain-language document detailing its “commitment to privacy in the home.” Others created new tools for users to manage and delete their data, such as the command “Alexa, delete what I just said.”

Ultimately, experts say users and government officials should not be satisfied with tech companies’ attempts to regulate themselves.

Within the last year, regulators have stepped up their scrutiny of tech companies’ data collection. The Senate has gotten closer to establishing a federal privacy law, which could require companies to clearly disclose their privacy policies. Lawmakers have hauled tech executives to the Hill to face questioning about data collection and privacy, while the Federal Trade Commission has handed down privacy-related fines to Facebook and Google’s YouTube this year.

Even if regulators do enact sweeping privacy legislation, consumers will still need to be careful about what kinds of smart devices they introduce in their home.

“This is going to be a very frustrating, nearly daily continuous problem for the public, both in the U.S. and around the world,” said Jeff Chester, executive director for the Center of Digital Democracy. “Tech companies will continue to push the envelope in terms of data collection.”

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Microsoft launches Mesh mixed reality platform at Ignite – IT World Canada

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Microsoft kicked off its virtual Ignite conference with a splash as chief executive officer Satya Nadella announced the company’s new mixed reality platform, Microsoft Mesh. Powered by Azure, Mesh allows people to interact in a virtual or augmented reality world.

More Ignite coverage

Microsoft announces three new industry-specific cloud offerings

“Mesh enables you to interact holographically with others with true presence in a natural way,” Nadella said during his keynote. “I can meet my colleagues on the other side of the world collaborating as though we were in the same room. Again, with no screen mediating our interactions. It’s pretty mind-boggling to imagine, but this is the future we are building. One of my favourite lines we used to describe the possibilities when we first introduced HoloLens was when you change the way you see the world, you change the world you see. I can’t wait to see the world we create together.”

Virtual worlds

He then handed the reins to Alex Kipman, a Microsoft technical fellow in AI and mixed reality, who spent the next 45 minutes presenting from several virtual worlds. In an unusual twist, viewers could don their own headsets, join him, or get a similar (although 2D) experience viewing the keynote on the AltspaceVR website – or through the desktop app.

Alex Kipman, technical fellow, AI and mixed reality

“Today, you and I make history as we collaborate on the largest mixed reality show ever created,” Kipman said. “Microsoft Mesh connects the physical and the digital worlds, allowing us to transcend the traditional boundaries of space and time. Microsoft Mesh is powered by Azure, and all of its AI and compute capabilities working seamlessly together from the intelligent edge to the intelligent cloud.”

Mesh, he said, lets developers create immersive experiences that lead users to connect from anywhere, feed true presence in mixed reality, and let workflows transition from familiar 2D mediums to the world of mixed reality. He said that over half of the Fortune 500 companies have purchased Hololens.

For example, Toyota uses Hololens, Dynamics 365 Remote Assist, and mixed reality services to improve maintenance efficiency. Technicians wearing Hololens can view information such as wiring harness configurations on specific car models via Azure Object Anchors while working on the vehicle. This process reduces inspection times by up to 20 per cent. The company is rolling out the Hololens 2 solution to all of its dealerships in Japan.

Another customer, Accenture, is experimenting with hybrid workflows to increase accessibility, allow remote collaboration and minimize unnecessary travel with a Mesh-enabled alt space. Since Mesh will work on HoloLens 2, Windows virtual reality headsets, Oculus headsets, PCs, Macs, and even smartphones, users are free to pick the most convenient device.

Beyond the enterprise

“But what happens when you go beyond the enterprise?” Kipman asked. “Collaboration doesn’t just take place in enterprise settings. Sometimes we just call it hanging out with friends. With Microsoft Mesh, you can connect from any device on any platform, transforming the way we connect to one another. Enabling hanging out wherever your friends are.”

Alex Kipman, Microsoft’s technical fellow, AI and mixed reality shows off the ways Mesh can be used outside of the enterprise setting. Source: Ignite keynote

In his virtual arena, the audience consisted of the avatars of attendees joining through VR. Kipman and several of his guests, including Niantic CEO John Hanke (who, with Pikachu, interacted with a colleague in a Pokémon GO battle), appeared via holoportation, which uses 3D capture technology to beam a lifelike image of the individual into the virtual world.

Alex Kipman, Microsoft and the virtual avatar for John Hanke, Niantic.

“Whether you’re exploring a brand-new park, or just walking through a familiar neighbourhood, augmented reality can make the real world a little more magical,” Hanke observed. “In the future, we imagine a real-world filled with adventures, helpful information, and of course, a lot of friends. AR that’s grounded in the real world, aware of us, and the environment, is an incredibly powerful starting point. And it becomes even more powerful when we can share it.”

In conjunction with Mesh’s release, Microsoft is also releasing developer tools to build Mesh experiences.

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Google pledges not to use other web tracking tools after phasing out cookies – Financial Post

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Privacy activists have criticized tech companies for using cookies to gather web browsing records across websites they don’t own

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Now, Google is pledging it will not use other technology to replace the cookie or build features inside Chrome to allow itself access to that data, though it continues to test ways for businesses to target ads to large groups of anonymous users with common interests.

“Keeping the internet open and accessible for everyone requires all of us to do more to protect privacy — and that means an end to not only third-party cookies, but also any technology used for tracking individual people as they browse the web,” Google said in the blog post.

Rival advertising tech companies are building tools to identify users across the web anonymously, including Criteo SA and The Trade Desk.

Shares of both companies dropped in January 2020 immediately after Google first announced it would eliminate cookies, but have risen consistently over the past year.

© Thomson Reuters 2021

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Microsoft Teams Gets End-to-End Encryption, Channel-Sharing, Webinar Support for 1,000 Attendees, and Mor… – Gadgets 360

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Microsoft Teams app has got new features including end-to-end encryption for calls, webinar support for up to 1,000 attendees, a new channel-sharing feature, and support for intelligent speakers that can differentiate between voices of up to 10 participants. Microsoft announced the new features during its ongoing Ignite 2021 developers’ event. It also introduced Microsoft PowerPoint Live in Microsoft Teams for more engaging presentations and a new Presenter Mode for customised video feeds during virtual meetings.

As per the announcements made during Microsoft Ignite 2021, the company said that its communication and collaboration app Microsoft Teams can now support up to 1,000 attendees during webinars. “And if your webinar grows to over 1,000 attendees, Teams will seamlessly scale to accommodate a 10,000-person, view-only broadcast experience,” Microsoft said. The limit will be increased to up to 20,000 people till the end of the year in order to facilitate remote work amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The new event capabilities are included with several Microsoft Office and other plans.

Microsoft Teams will now also support end-to-end encryption (E2EE) for one-to-one Teams calls. Microsoft says that a company’s IT department will have full discretion over who can use E2EE in the organisation.

Another important update regarding Microsoft Teams is the announcement of Teams Connect, a new feature that allows a firm to collaborate with multiple organisations internally or externally. With Microsoft Teams Connect, organisations can share channels with anyone, which will appear within a person’s primary Microsoft Teams account alongside other teams and channels. For example, if a team in an organisation is working on a specific project in collaboration with another team at a different company, they can share channels in order to easily access content for a streamlined workflow.

Microsoft Teams Connect is available today in private preview and will roll out broadly later this calendar year, said the company. Furthermore, the company is also bringing new gallery views to Microsoft Teams Rooms, including Together Mode “to make it easier to see everyone in the meeting”.

Microsoft Teams Intelligent speakers automatically generate transcripts during a meeting
Photo Credit: Microsoft

Microsoft also launched new Microsoft Teams Intelligent speakers. Microsoft says that these speakers can identify and differentiate the voices of up to 10 people talking in a Microsoft Teams Room. Created in partnership with EPOS and Yealink, the speakers can also automatically generate a transcript during a meeting, which will be attributed to the person speaking at any given point. The company is also giving users full control to turn attribution on/ off as a privacy and security measure. As per a report by The Verge, these speakers also support translation if users want to follow a meeting in a different language. However, there is no information on what all languages are supported for translation.

The company also announced Microsoft PowerPoint Live in Microsoft Teams that enhances the ease of presenting by bringing notes, slides, meeting chat, and participants all in a single view. Microsoft Teams will also soon get a new Presenter Mode that will show the presenter’s video feed alongside their content as they present.


What will be the most exciting tech launch of 2021? We discussed this on Orbital, our weekly technology podcast, which you can subscribe to via Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or RSS, download the episode, or just hit the play button below.

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