The Ethics of Big Data: smart TVs, virtual assistants and the Big Brother

big brother

You come home after a long day of work, close the door behind you and say the magic words: “Hey Alexa, order a meat feast pizza.” And in 30 minutes (or free), you get your cheesy goodness without any effort. No pushing buttons, no grabbing your phone or turning your laptop on. You simply say the words, and your assistant (no matter if it is Amazon’s, Google’s, Apple’s or other) will listen. Because they are always listening.

They are watching us

In his novel 1984, George Orwell described a device that was located in every single house, a tool for the Party to both transmit their messages and indoctrination, but also to spy on the citizens. The telescreen, as this device was called, cannot be turned off and is always listening. If that gives you a déja-vu from the previous paragraph, do not forget that telescreens are really not that different from the smart TVs we can find in our stores, or our living rooms.

Samsung has actually admitted their smart TVs’ voice recognition system could be recording and sharing private conversations, and there are companies working on face recognition technology for televisions to identify the viewers’ mood and target relevant ads during show breaks.  According to the report Is my smart TV working for the Big Brother?, published by the European Audiovisual Observatory, the screens also can track the users’ motion around the room, and the gathered data is based on whether they set up a user account or not.

It’s not only TVs or smart speakers, but even our phones (and specific apps installed in them) listen to our conversations to later show us adverts related to the topics we discuss. Several TV and radio shows have encouraged their audience to leave their smartphones around to later check if they get any ads on whatever topic was being discussed during the show.

What protects us

Although European legislation protects EU citizens against abusive privacy intrusion, this is not the case in every country in the world and is just the current framework. Even if all this data is protected now, no one knows what a future government can do with it, particularly in a time when far-right parties keep gaining momentum. Should these companies be gathering information not relevant to their products’ functions? What benefit can the user actually get from that?

Both users and manufacturers should consider the data they gather with every new generation of technological products, the reason behind that and what purpose does it serve. As cool as it is to order a pizza or turn the lights off just using our voice, is it worth giving away our privacy?