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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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Facebook ‘planning to rebrand company’ with new name – Al Jazeera English

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CEO Mark Zuckerberg plans to talk about the name change at its annual conference on October 28, but it could be sooner.

Social media giant Facebook Inc is planning to rebrand itself with a new name next week, American technology blog the Verge reported on Tuesday, citing a source with direct knowledge of the matter.

Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg plans to talk about the name change at the company’s annual Connect conference on October 28, but it could be unveiled sooner, the Verge reported.

In response, Facebook said it does not comment on “rumour or speculation”.

The news comes at a time when the company is facing increasing government scrutiny in the United States over its business practices.

Legislators from both parties have excoriated the company, illustrating the rising anger in Congress with Facebook.

‘A metaverse company’

The rebranding would position Facebook’s social media app as one of many products under a parent company, which will also oversee groups like Instagram, WhatsApp, Oculus and more, the Verge report added.

It is not uncommon in Silicon Valley for companies to change their names as they bid to expand their services.

Google established Alphabet Inc as a holding company in 2015 to expand beyond its search and advertising businesses, to oversee various other ventures ranging from its autonomous vehicle unit and health technology to providing internet services in remote areas.

The move to rebrand will also reflect Facebook’s focus on building the so-called metaverse, an online world where people can use different devices to move and communicate in a virtual environment, according to the report.

Facebook has invested heavily in virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) and intends to connect its nearly three billion users through several devices and apps. On Tuesday, the company announced plans to create 10,000 jobs in the European Union over the next five years to help build the metaverse.

Zuckerberg has been talking up metaverse since July when he said that the key to Facebook’s future lies with the metaverse concept – the idea that users will live, work and exercise inside a virtual universe. The company’s Oculus virtual reality headsets and service are an instrumental part of realizing that vision.

“In the coming years, I expect people will transition from seeing us primarily as a social media company to seeing us as a metaverse company,” Zuckerberg said at the time. “In many ways, the metaverse is the ultimate expression of social technology.”

The buzzy word, first coined in a dystopian novel three decades earlier, has been referenced by other tech firms such as Microsoft.

The Verge report said a possible name for the company could have something to do with Horizon. Recently, Facebook renamed its in-development VR gaming platform named ‘Horizon’’to “Horizon Worlds”.

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Apple's voice-only Music subscription could boost Siri's accent understanding – TechCrunch

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Apple had a slew of interesting announcements at its event on Monday. But one that stood out to me — and I feel didn’t get as much attention — is the new pricing tier of Apple Music. A new “Voice” tier will offer the entire Apple Music library to subscribers at a reduced rate of just $5 per month: The catch is you have to use Siri to access it, eschewing the standard Apple Music visual and typing-friendly in-app user interface.

Apple didn’t share why it is launching this plan, but I think it’s reasonable to speculate that the iPhone-maker is lowering the price barrier and persuading more people to use Siri because it wants to gather more voice data to train and improve its voice assistant.

“We’re excited that even more people will be able to enjoy Apple Music simply with their voice,” Apple chief executive Tim Cook said at the event.

I can’t imagine any other compelling reason why the Apple Music Voice plan exists, especially since Apple is likely offering the new service with much lower margins than the standard plan, as the licensing agreements with labels remain the same to offer up the entire Apple Music catalog.

Again, this is just speculation, but I think given the stiff competition between Apple and Spotify, if the Swedish firm could offer its streaming service at $7-8 a month to beat Apple Music at price, it would. And Apple is taking some loss with the new subscription tier because it really wants to gather vast amounts of data. When I tweeted this theory, my colleague Alex wondered aloud why wouldn’t Apple just make the subscription free? I suppose Apple, a $2.5 trillion company, can technically swallow that much of a hit on the balance sheet, but it doesn’t want to attract more criticism from standalone music streaming firms such as Spotify. It’s already facing scrutiny for anti-competitive behavior on a number of fronts.

Tech firms feed their AI models with vast amounts of data to improve the services’ capabilities. Even as Siri has considerably improved over the years, the general consensus among many people who work in tech and the masses alike is that Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant are far superior.

It’s likely that Apple has already been gleaning such voice data from existing Apple Music users, but as a friend suggested, “the point is this — this feature always existed. It’s just that they’d put a high paywall. They’ve lowered that wall now.” In addition to lowering the barrier to entry, making Music voice-only via the new plan means people have to engage with Siri to make use of it; Siri is a feature for standard Apple Music subscribers, but it’s highly likely that most users primarily or exclusively access the content via the app’s UI.

If you want an example of what can happen to voice-powered assistants when you require that users treat it as a voice-first or voice-only service, look at Amazon’s Alexa. Out of the gate, Alexa had to be accessed by voice. This allowed Amazon to not only collect massive amounts of training data for its Alexa algorithms, but also helped train users about how to use it to maximum effect.

Understanding accents and dialects

Another reason why I think my theory works is the markets where Apple plans to offer this new subscription tier first: Australia, Austria, Canada, China, France, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Spain, Taiwan, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Having India, Spain, Ireland and France in the first wave of nations suggests that Apple is looking to amass a wide-range of dialects and accents from across the globe. On a side note, voice search is very popular in many markets, including developing nations such as India, and in markets like China and Japan where text input can sometimes be unnecessarily complex versus spoken word. (A Google executive told me once that the surprising mass adoption of voice searches in India, the world’s second-largest smartphone market and where Android commands about 98% of the pie, helped the company improve Google Assistant and prompted more aggressive approach to innovate on the voice front.)

Siri is often framed as a bit of a laggard in terms of its competence versus the rest of the voice assistant competition, and Apple’s latest move in services could be an attempt to help it close the perceived gap, while offering customers a discounted way to onboard to its music streaming service.

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PSA: the MacBook Pro 14-inch’s $20 power brick upsell is probably worth it – The Verge

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If you’re looking at buying the $1,999 base model MacBook Pro 14-inch, there’s one upgrade that you may really want to make — the $20 one that gets you the 96W power adapter instead of the 67W included power adapter. That’s because, according to some wording on Apple’s MacBook Pro configuration page (spotted by MacRumors), you’ll need the more powerful charger if you want to take advantage of the computer’s fast charging feature, which can charge the laptop up to 50 percent in half an hour.

Is it ridiculous that Apple is basically taxing the people who want to buy its least expensive (but still very pricey!) new MacBook Pro? Yes, absolutely — but you should still probably pay it if you want to charge your laptop up quickly. The exception is if you already have a charging brick capable of 100W USB-PD power delivery: Apple tells The Verge that you can fast charge via Thunderbolt as long as your power brick provides enough power. If you already have a beefy power brick, you can skip the upsell.

I know it probably doesn’t feel great to encourage Apple’s nickel-and-diming, but if you want fast charging, this will likely be the best way to get it. There may be, somewhere in the world, a 100W USB-PD charging brick that sells for $20, but there’s no way I would trust it enough to charge a very expensive computer. (If it was $20, I might not even trust it not to burn down my house). I’d pick the upsell.

The one silver lining is that this is only a problem on the base 8 CPU core / 14 GPU core model — if you do any processor upgrades, you’ll get the 96W brick for “free.” Please note, though, that upgrading just the RAM and/or storage on the base MacBook Pro won’t get you that upgrade, but if you’re in the configuration screen anyways, you should absolutely check that box unless you hate fast charging.

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