Opinion: Siri’s listening intently, but she’s not alone


Siri is always listening and knows where you are. But what if someone else is there listening, in your home, in your office, on your wrist, all the time? What if someone, the government, the police, the FBI, is tracking you? — Photo by Omid Armin on Unsplash

It was one of those great San Francisco moments. Steve Jobs walked out on the stage at the Moscone Convention Center to give the keynote address at the Macworld conference. He was famous, an electronic pioneer, a slender, almost gaunt man who wore rimless glasses, blue jeans and white sneakers. He spoke without notes.

“Every once in a while,” he said, “a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything.”

He talked a bit about the new device. “Today Apple is going to reinvent the phone,” he said. “Here it is.” He held up a black instrument only 4 1/2 inches tall. “We are calling it the iPhone,” he said.

That was just over 14 years ago, a Tuesday morning, Jan 9, 2007. Since then the iPhone has been developed with warp speed. It has been improved, miniaturised, other technologies have been added. The phone is so small and so smart you can wear it on your wrist like a watch.

Fast-forward now to a foggy San Francisco morning just the other day. We were having breakfast, and the Sailor Girl, my faithful companion, took note of the fog bank rolling over Twin Peaks. “I’m tired of this,” she said. “It’s freezing.”

“Actually, it is 57 degrees in your location,” a woman’s voice said. “Who said that?” I said. “Is somebody here?”

Actually, it was Siri, the artificial voice on my companion’s smartphone, responding to what it thought was a request for weather information. “Siri, why are you listening to me? I wasn’t talking to you,” my companion said. “I am always ready,” the mechanical voice said.

At the time, we thought this little exchange was amusing. Siri has been kind of a friend. Two Christmases ago a different Siri device came as a Christmas present. I liked her. “Hey, Siri,” I’d say on a quiet afternoon, “Play some jazz.” And she would. Siri seemed partial to Dave Brubeck. She had taste.

I thought I’d test her out. “Hey, Siri, ‘How are you?’” Siri was fine and always ready to help.

After a while, I began to think Siri was real. “Hey, Siri, how tall are you?” “I’m very small,” she said. But then I guess I got too personal when I asked the colour of her eyes. Siri said she had no eyes. Siri stopped working after that. We turned her in for a replacement.

Sometimes I’d tell people about my conversations with Siri and how I must have offended her. “Don’t be ridiculous,” they’d say. “It’s just a device.”

But just the other night I watched 2001: A Space Odyssey on television. Remember the sequence when HAL, the onboard computer with artificial intelligence, began listening to the astronauts and began to interfere with the humans? That movie was made in 1968, when the year 2001 seemed far in the future. Now it’s 2021, and Siri is always listening, ready to do my bidding. Siri’s sister Alexa wakes us up every morning at 6.30. She also keeps an eye out for Amazon package deliveries.

Siri also has an automotive sister, who has a British accent for some reason and helps with directions when I’m driving. We don’t need maps – that’s so 20th century. She knows the route. But if you overrule her – take a slightly different route, the British Siri seems annoyed. “Return to route,” the voice says crisply. “Return to route.”

This happened twice last month when I wanted to go to the Sonoma coast and Siri wanted me to use the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge instead of navigating through the city and using the Golden Gate. Was she really annoyed? Of course not. It’s just a device.

But the next day, I found my iPhone had traced the route I’d driven. It knew my location, too. It always does.

And not only that, these devices are universal and indispensable. When was the last time you got a personal call on your home landline phone? I went for a long walk on a spring day, and I was five blocks from home when I realised I’d forgotten my cellphone. I went on, enjoying the walk and the fresh air. But then a nagging thought: What if someone wanted to reach me? What if it was important? What if?

I couldn’t get it out of my mind. So I went into a corner store in the Western Addition. I wanted to check. “Pardon me,” I said to the clerk. “Can you tell me where to find the nearest pay phone?” He looked amazed, as if I had asked him directions to the nearest Algerian Embassy. “Pay phone?” he said. “What’s that?”

That’s the trouble with these devices. They are a blessing. And a curse. Siri is always listening and knows where you are. But what if someone else is there listening, in your home, in your office, on your wrist, all the time? What if someone, the government, the police, the FBI, is tracking you?

There is a lot of talk these days about privacy and wiretaps, and control of the social media. But there is really no such thing as privacy. It’s a trade. We traded convenience for a technology that can control our lives.

I wonder whether Steve Jobs thought of that when he stood up in Moscone Center and said his device would change everything. – San Francisco Chronicle/Tribune News Service

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