- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Big Tech has largely settled on a single explanation to excuse its invasions of users’ privacy: Technical errors.

Software glitches have been used to explain everything from turning on devices’ microphones to listen in, to opening users’ cameras, to reading their typed messages.

This month, a Reddit user posted a screenshot of Google sending notifications to his phone about alarms heard in his home, which isn’t something he knew Google could do.

“Burned something in the kitchen and the cheap $10 smoke detector went off,” said the Reddit user brazedowl. “Then I got a notification on my phone that Google heard the smoke detector going off. Pretty rad Google.”

Google said the microphones on its devices that monitored people without their knowledge was just an error.

“We are aware of an issue that inadvertently enabled sound detection alerts for sounds like smoke alarms or glass breaking on speakers that are not part of a Nest Aware subscription,” a Google representative said in an email. “The issue was caused by a recent software update and only impacted a subset of Google Home, Google Home Mini and Google Home Max speakers. We have since rolled out a fix that will automatically disable sound detection on devices that are not part of Nest Aware.”

Google’s Nest Aware product allows paying subscribers to monitor their homes remotely, and its functionality may have been turned on for people who did not have any idea that Nest Aware exists.

Last week, Google announced that it was developing a “long-term, strategic partnership” with home security company ADT that would focus on Google’s Nest devices and use Google’s machine learning capabilities. Google invested $450 million in ADT as part of the new working partnership.

Google is far from the only tech company facing questions about its privacy mishaps. An Instagram user discovered last month that the app had opened the user’s iPhone camera.

The Instagram user was testing Apple’s new iOS 14 operating system when the user noticed the phone showed that the camera was turned on. Facebook, which owns Instagram, quickly dismissed the user’s concern as attributable to a glitch that should not concern anyone.

“We only access your camera when you tell us to — for example, when you swipe from Feed to Camera,” a Facebook representative said at the time. “We found and are fixing a bug in iOS 14 Beta that mistakenly indicates that some people are using the camera when they aren’t. We do not access your camera in those instances, and no content is recorded.”

Several other companies have been accused of spying on what users type on their phones, including Microsoft’s LinkedIn, Reddit and TikTok. A New York user sued LinkedIn last month for spying on its users and for “spying on their nearby computers and other devices.”

Users of the iPhone who were testing the new Apple operating system saw alerts that said LinkedIn, Reddit, TikTok and several other apps were copying the content of their clipboards, which hold information that users copy and paste. Reddit blamed problematic computer code, while TikTok said its tech error was caused by a feature designed to discover “spammy behavior.”

More than 50 apps are suspected of similar behavior, according to reports, and there is not much indication that the U.S. government is intervening to protect consumer privacy rights. President Trump has announced he is moving forward to ban TikTok from the U.S. unless the Chinese-owned video app finds an American partner and addresses national security concerns.

The government has not taken any similar action against dozens of other apps and technology companies that are listening, watching or reading users’ every move.

Disgruntled consumers and customers, however, have few options if they want to take their business elsewhere, and changing platforms rarely offers an escape from snooping.

For example, Facebook has created “Reels” as a video feature on Instagram that is a competitor to TikTok, but both Instagram and TikTok have received complaints of privacy invasions from their users.

New social media platforms tailored to niche audiences and disgruntled social media consumers, such as Parler, have not reached the scale of established rivals such as Twitter.

The first step toward a better understanding of how to protect one’s data could be accomplished by examining a company’s terms of service, which provides some insight on what data gets collected. Future software upgrades, such as Apple’s forthcoming operating system, may shed some light on apps’ private behavior on Apple devices.

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