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I-Spies Are Looking for You

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By Carl Weiss

Just when you thought online privacy couldn’t get any worst, technology developers have unveiled software that lets your smartphone eavesdrop on your TV viewing habits.  Called SilverPush, this Android-based third-party app uses your smartphone to listen for television shows, in turn providing advertisers with information concerning user’s viewing habits. When the app was unleashed in Europe, it caused the US Federal Trade Commission to send letters to12 developers known to be using SilverPush.  While the developer of SilverPush claims that the software hasn’t been used in the US as of yet, the feds warned them that use on American smartphones would result in the developers being held liable for damages if users weren’t made aware of the data being collected.

You can’t put the toothpaste back in the YouTube

More troubling than the development of an eavesdropping app is the fact that this and other similar technology currently on the shelf could open a Pandora’s Box letting the virtual marketing spy into our lives. This is beginning to take place as our homes, businesses and vehicles start to become virtual listening stations. Soon other IoT devices could easily be turned into spies.  Already there is technology like Apple Siri, Google Now, Amazon’s Alexa, and Microsoft Cortana that listen and learn from users ostensibly to help them get more out of their Internet browsing experience.  But what would happen if the same technology that allows us to ask for useful information should suddenly be turned against us?

Virtual Assistant Turned into a Virtual Salesperson

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Just as Americans have been forced to accept the loss of privacy every time they log onto most search engines and social nets, will there come a time in the not too distant future when everything we say in private is bought and sold to the highest bidder?  Even worse, what if major Etailers start using their AI’s to sell us products of their own choosing.  Think that concept is a little farfetched?  A recent blogpost on entitled,Amazon’s end goal for the Echo is letting you order anything on Amazon by voice might just be a taste of things to come.

The Amazon Echo helps you do a lot of things beyond shopping, which is a big reason why it has become an out-of-nowhere sensation. But for the Echo to “achieve the long-term vision,” according to Amazon’s devices head David Limp, it’s going to have to become an all-out shopping machine. 

Indeed, the only thing that limits Echo users from shopping till they drop at present is the fact that currently the device is audio-only. This means that while you can easily order commodities via voice, ordering other items such as clothing that requires a consumer to see the product they are interested in purchasing is still not available.  Not that the powers that be at Amazon aren’t considering the solution to this dilemma.

Limp declined to give any hints on how Amazon plans to close the gap between the ordering capabilities available today and the long-term shopping goals of tomorrow. One far-out idea? Pairing the Echo with a virtual reality headset to show an Echo user an item as they ask Alexa about it, all without the need to take out a phone or laptop.

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While having your virtual assistant turned into a virtual sales rep might be a bit creepy, think of what the same technology could be used to accomplish:

  1. A VR enabled virtual assistant already makes it possible to work in a virtual office, complete with virtual secretary.
  2. A VR/AI enabled physician could make virtual house calls a reality.
  3. You’d have a virtual research assistance literally at your fingertips.
  4. With the right app, your home and business could be protected by a virtual security guard.
  5. You could give your child an AI equipped smartphone to act as a virtual nanny.
Quite literally, as AI evolves, more and more tasks that require human intervention will be outsourced to virtual employees.  Whether this is a good thing or bad depends upon whether or not it is your job that is being replaced.  However, much as there is potential for progress in the virtual world, there also lurks the potential for abuse. 

In the first place, what most people who use digital assistants do not understand is that there are people in the pipeline.  While digital assistants act as though they are holding a conversation with you, there are legions of writers that are employed on a daily basis to determine what Siri, Cortana, Alexa and Google Now say.

In an article on entitled, “How real people help Cortana, Siri and other virtual assistants feel alive,” writer Mike Elgin points out that while people know that they’re talking to a computer, they are also struck by the fact that the responses they receive seem far more human than they expect.

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What you get as a response to your question or request to a virtual assistant isn’t what a real-live person said.  It’s what a team of people believe a real-live human being could or should say.  Some replies are constructed from prerecorded words and phrases – the sentences are pieced together by software to answer some arbitrary question – and other are written as full sentences or paragraphs. 

These writing teams virtually take a meeting every morning where they pour over the questions being posed to their AI as well as the responses given.  This means that all questions posed to an AI are recorded and subject to review by a human being.  Each AI also has a preprogrammed personality that is written much like a character in a novel.  That should come as no surprise since the writing staff assigned to update all AI includes novelists, screenwriters, playwrights and essayists.

Will Big Brother Arrive Disguised as Little Sister?
So while you might entrust your AI of choice to answer simple questions, don’t entrust her with any business secrets.  Also, don’t trust either big business or the hacking community, not to exploit technology that allows them to virtually wiretap your life.  Especially when their front man comes disguised as a digital assistant with a soothing female voice.
In a January 2015 blog on the Huffington Post entitled, Will Big Data Be Used to Create Ad Zombies or Virtual Assistants? writer Gary Ebersole cites a South Park episode that lampoons the loss of privacy online.
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Between bouts of outright laughter and knowing chuckles, it wasn’t hard to see the truth in the dystopian view delivered by Trey Parker, writer and director of these episodes. Parker shrewdly avoided giving his characters the “tech-speak” dialogue typically associated with discussions of big data algorithms that drive online advertising. Instead, he very effectively presented a vision of an online world dominated by a blizzard of popup ads and sponsored content masquerading as news. In that distorted reality, the residents of South Park were unable to separate reality (or as “real” as the online world can be, cartoon or otherwise) and the fictional world of advertising. Indeed, at the close of the season a character on the show, Leslie, has been completely transformed by online advertisers into the ultimate consumer—a walking, talking, human-appearing ad zombie.
He also points out that the episode alludes to the fact that George Orwell’s vision of Big Brother is rapidly being replaced by Big Business.  Ebersole further emphasizes that the best way to avoid being steered like a herd of lobotomized sheep to do their corporate overlords business is for consumers to demand transparency from corporations out to harvest ever more personal information.  What he doesn’t address is the fact that most Americans have already ceded their right to online privacy by allowing big business to strip mine their browsing and buying habits. 
Virtual Visigoths are at the Gate
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With everything from smart appliances to AI enabled devices that are becoming more commonplace in homes, offices and vehicles, it seems inevitable that our last bastions of privacy are being quickly eroded.  Add to this the disturbing reality that hackers are currently deploying software that enables them to do everything from surreptitiously take control of your laptop’s webcam to rifling through and locking you out of your computer. Like it or not, what it comes down to is the realization that the Virtual Visigoths are at the gate and that I-Spies are looking for you.
In this article I have covered the alarming emergence of our appliances spying on us. This trend started with the introduction of “The Internet of Things” and has now manifested itself as virtual assistances turned marketing spy’s. This article covers everything from the new smart phone app “SilverPush”, designed to listen to which TV shows you’re watching, to Echo’s Alexa and how Amazon plans to use it to achieve more sales. I even provide links to articles that provide more detail on this subject.

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If you found this article useful please share it with your friends, family and co-workers. If you would like to learn more about this subject, visit the notes page on this blog for the BlogTalkRadio show dated 3/29/16. I recommend checking out "Has the Internet Made Us Smarter?“, "Hector the Connector Predictions for 2016 and Beyond!", "Is The Internet of Everything Really, Everything They're Cracking it Up to Be?" and “The Piracy of Privacy - The Looting of Privacy in America”. You can also search for other related articles by typing in “Virtual Assistant” in the search box at the top of this blog.

If you feel your business could use some help with its marketing, contact us at 904-410-2091. We will provide a free marketing analysis to help you get better results. If you'd like a free copy of our eBook, "Internet Marketing Tips for the 21st Century," please fill in the form below and we will give you immediate access to it. Your information is always kept private and is never sold.

Carl Weiss is president of a digital marketing agency in Jacksonville, Florida that routinely works with bloggers and other online marketers to grow their businesses.

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