How much do tech companies really know about us?


Jessi Rich, Co-Editor-in-Chief

Imagine this: in a casual conversation, you say to your friend that you’re thinking about buying a new pair of jeans. Then, the next time you open up Instagram, there’s a colorful ad for spring denim blaring right at you. 


It’s a scenario most of us have experienced once or twice, and it’s stirring up a lot of questions. How does the market seem to know what people want before they do? Are our lives as private as we think?


The major culprits under fire are not our smartphones but rather our smart assistants. Namely, the Google Home Mini and Amazon Echo have been accused of recording home conversations. Last May, Delaware Democratic senator Chris Coons wrote a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, demanding information about the Amazon Echo’s alleged recordings. 


Amazon’s vice president of public policy, Brian Huseman, wrote back, and needless to say, his answers made people nationwide squeamish. Huseman revealed that the company stores and uses the audio recordings unless “expressly deleted by the user.”


Google has a similar policy regarding audio recordings. In fact, Google Home Mini users have observed a somewhat concerning glitch in the tiny computer: If the microphone mistakenly picks up on the “wake word” (“Hey Google” or “Ok Google”) it can start recording without ever notifying the user. While the microphone can be switched off, doing so would defeat the purpose of having a smart assistant, as it won’t respond to you if it can’t hear what you ask.


So if these smart devices are truly listening in, for what reason are they doing so, and should the American public be concerned? Forbes writer Enrique Dans writes in his article that no, there’s nothing to worry about. “…nobody is forcing you to buy these devices,” says Dans, “but if you decide to, you should understand that training the algorithms that drive them means that somebody has to listen to a recording, label it and categorize it, and then incorporate it in an anonymous and extremely valuable database…”


Some Americans share Dans’s position, agreeing that the recordings shouldn’t be blown out of proportion. “I don’t really mind home assistants because they do make life a little easier,” says Milton senior Austin Vo. “Besides, it’s not like I say anything controversial or dangerous to it.”


If you’re still uncomfortable with your voice being stored and used for training, no worries, there is a way to delete the recordings. From Google’s settings page, users can deactivate the recordings and thus remove them from Google’s servers.


However, deleting these recordings won’t keep companies from paying attention to what you type into a search engine or what you browse through online.Targeted ads, or stalker ads–like the spring denim we discussed earlier–occur when a cookie is stored on your device as a specific identifier, which companies then use to track your interests. “They look for signals,” writes Brian X. Chen in an article for the “New York Times,” “like if you closed the browser after looking at [a] blender for while or left the item in the site’s shopping cart without completing the purchase.” This is how companies and websites know exactly the products you’re looking for and exactly when you’re looking for them.


In the end, the ubiquity of technology nowadays is making people question just how to protect their privacy, but where this question becomes an issue is when we consider all that this technology is doing. Whether it’s finding the perfect new pair of jeans or asking Alexa for help with your math homework, there is some good to what these companies are doing.


Perhaps the bigger question is this, then: How far are these companies–and we, as consumers–willing to go?


By: Jessi Rich