Have you ever felt like no one was listening to what you had to say? Thanks to Apple's latest software upgrade, someone might listen to everything you say for the rest of time.
Thanks to the iOS 9 upgrade, released Sept. 16, users can now set Siri to activate automatically when they say "Hey, Siri." The function isn't enabled automatically; system defaults have it turned off. However, for users who turn it on, it means that Siri will listen to every word spoken in its vicinity.
That means the world is entering an era where more audio is going to be recorded than at any point in history. Think you have privacy at a friend's house? That may no longer be the case. If you're on the sidewalk, in a mall, or even in a public bathroom with other people, Siri is going to be monitoring you.
Apple's terms of service also make it clear that the company has a right to know everything about you that Siri knows. "When you use Siri … the things you say and dictate will be recorded and sent to Apple to process your requests. Your device will also send Apple other information, such as your name and nickname; the names, nicknames, and relationship with you (e.g., 'my dad') of your address book contacts, song names in your collection," and other information, the terms state.
That provision of Apple's terms gained notoriety this year, when a Reddit poster named "FallenMyst" nonchalantly mentioned that they had been working for a company to review conversations that had been harvested by Siri unbeknownst to users. Apple said it was trying to improve Siri's ability to transcribe speech.
Apple isn't the only company creating such a product. Microsoft's Xbox One, released this year, has similar capabilities, and Google is working on responsive audio software as well. In coming years, the companies are planning to ensure that the software is installed on other household appliances, such as televisions, and the first "Apple cars," tentatively set for release in 2019.
"The 'Star Trek' computer is not just a metaphor that we use to explain to others what we're building," Amit Singhal, a senior vice president and software engineer at Google, said in 2013. "It is the ideal that we're aiming to build — the ideal version done realistically."
It's unclear whether Singhal was referencing the original series in which the "M-5 Multitronic System" took over Captain Kirk's Enterprise and promptly began targeting people to save them "from the dangerous activities of space exploration."
Adam Thierer, a senior research fellow in the Technology Policy Program at George Mason University's Mercatus Center, said technological development is taking place at such a rapid pace that it is difficult for consumers to keep tabs on, or the government to regulate.
"Obviously, we have so many different companies who are involved in this space that the government can't possibly keep up with all of the innovators who are trying to provide digital technology," Thierer said.
"We're going to end up relying upon a wide variety of different types of tools, technologies and defaults, mostly put in place by corporations, and hopefully we'll be able to pick and choose what level of privacy and security we want for our devices.
"I absolutely think that companies need to be more transparent about their business practices," Thierer added.
Looking at it from another perspective, Apple's upgrade could also prove invaluable to domestic spying efforts. Congress is presently considering whether to pass the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act, which would free companies from liability for sharing their troves of information with the government. While the law is generally intended to prevent the government from looking at the "contents of communication," it isn't clear that a user's relationship with Siri constitutes "communication" so much as casual banter.
That means that in addition to Siri, Apple employees and "FallenMyst," you can add government spooks to the list of entities who want to know what you're talking to yourself about when you think you're alone in the bathroom. Remember to say hello.
This article appears in the Sept. 28 edition of the Washington Examiner magazine.