What do you do if you think your friend is bugging you? I don’t mean bothering you. I mean…bugging you…using a device to listen to you, maybe e1ven recording your conversations, when you visit their home. Well, that’s the world most of us live in now. Personal assistants, many modern TVs, smart doorbells…they all incorporate listening devices. What if you don’t want to be surveilled like that? Should you ask your friends to turn off their Alexa when you walk in the door? Should they offer?
Tech etiquette sounds like something maybe we should be talking to Ann Landers about politeness or whatnot, but in reality, tech etiquette has a very, very serious side. When somebody visits a friend’s home right now, it’s quite likely they have some kind of electronic devices that could be listening, smart, doorbells, smart televisions, personal assistance. What are the rules around these things? Social rules, legal rules, and what can be done about them.
For my latest episode of Debugger, I talked with Jolynn Dellinger, a privacy law professor at Duke University, where she is also a senior fellow at the Kenan Institute for Ethics. (Kenan and Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy support podcast).
You can listen by clicking here, or clicking the play button below if it appears in your browser. A short transcript follows.
[00:02:05] Jolynn: I’ve just been thinking about it more recently with the proliferation of personal assistants like Alexa, Google Assistant. But I had a very interesting conversation on Twitter the other day with a bunch of random people that I don’t know. Uh, and it seemed to spark a lot of interest and along a lot of strong opinions about … What, what is the etiquette? And my question was .. When you go to somebody’s house, do you need to ask them whether they have always on listening devices or should a homeowner when you have people over as guests? Let those people know I have listening devices on? Is that okay? And this seems like a weird question because I don’t think anyone is engaging in this kind of etiquette right now.
And as a couple of people pointed out on the Twitter conversation, you know, this is just as important to ask with phones. Because folks who have their personal assistants activated on their phones, which I don’t, but some people do, whether it’s Siri or, or whatever on an Android, it presents the same issue of being always on.
And I think that raises some questions we should be talking about in terms of what’s appropriate in terms of potentially recording other people without their permission or consent
[00:03:27] Bob: Something I can’t even imagine right now. Welcome. Let me take your coat. Would you like a glass of wine and oh, are you okay if I record it this entire evening.
[00:03:36] Jolynn: Yes, exactly. Exactly. They’re not recording the entire evening and I don’t want to over-represent, but they are always listening and able to record. Of course.
But I think back in the day, well, at least when I was in college, it was almost people treated it almost like an imposition if you said you were a vegetarian. Right? Like they invite you to dinner and you’re like, okay, well I’m a vegetarian. Oh really? And so I think nowadays, when people invite someone over for dinner, they almost always say, are there any dietary restrictions? And I don’t know whether that’s because becoming vegetarian or vegan is more mainstream or there is a proliferation of allergies. You want to make sure somebody doesn’t have a nut allergy or, or something like that. So it’s gained acceptance over time and I’m kind of wondering if we should be heading in that direction with, surveillance technology.
[00:04:36] Bob: I wonder mechanically, how it would even be accomplished. So let’s say someone says, I just really morally opposed to having listening devices around me activated, how would someone turn off all their smart devices in a swoop like that?Is that even possible?
[00:04:53] Jolynn: I was asking that on Twitter. I mean, there are certainly people far more technologically proficient than myself and many pointed that out. Somebody said, well, I have 20 of those devices around my house. It would take me half an hour to go around and dismantle everything. And another person made a really good point as well. This person had some physical challenges, um, and was using listening devices in a way that enabled him or her to, to live a safe life. So that turning off those devices would actually pose a serious problem for that person. And I think, you know, we always need to be aware of that and, and I would never ask somebody to turn something off that they were using in that way.
I think the more common situation though, is folks using these for convenience or fun. And so they’re cooking and they can say, Alexa, play my blah-blah-blah playlist. And in that circumstance, I think that, um, my preference or anyone’s preference to not have the device on, uh, should supersede. However, do you just unplug it or do you put it in the microwave or the refrigerator? I mean, these were all things that were discussed on this Twitter thread, which was hilarious. Some people said it wouldn’t be that hard to disconnect.
[00:06:08] Bob: I was surprised to see several people …seemed to say, if you have a problem with my Siri or my Alexa, then I’m, I’m uninviting you. You’re not allowed in my house anymore. That was a shocking reaction to me.
[00:06:21] Jolynn: Right. I thought so too. And that’s what I was seeing. You know, if you invited your friend for dinner, I mean, we need to keep this focused on the fact that these are usually our friends that we’re inviting over and have you invited somebody for dinner? And they said, I’m a vegetarian. You likely would not say, well, tough. I’m having steak, right? I mean, that’s probably not what you would say. I think there are many, many technologies that we use. And part of the reason I pose this question is every time that we make personal decisions to use emerging technologies, surveillance technologies, and others, it may be something that affects only ourselves and our families, or maybe something that affects others.
And this even goes for a direct to consumer DNA test, right? That’s not protected. And your DNA gets out information about other people besides just you. And is that something where you should be asking your family before you send spit in a cup to 23 and me, um, other things around the house besides Alexa is like nest cameras.
You know, some folks have those around their homes so they can see in their children’s rooms when they’re out for the evening. Well, if I send my child over to play with that child is my child then being observed by those cameras? Internet of things, Barbie dolls that talk to children or other toys, rain cameras that maybe doing audio and video recording of conversations that take place outside people’s apartments or homes.
I think there’s a lot of these questions that we should be talking about
[00:07:54] Bob: So I had a Ring experience. I sold a house, not that long ago, and I put up a ring camera because I was going to be traveling during some of the process. And I put it up with the default settings and right away, a realtor and prospective buyer showed up at the house and I could hear them talking about my house and, and I thought to myself, I was horrified by this.
Of course, there was a piece of me that was tempted to listen in closely and say, oh, perhaps I should change the paint on that wall, everyone hates the color in the living room or whatnot. Right? But that would give me an unfair advantage potentially. And more than an unfair advantage. When I dug through the paperwork, uh, then the specifications on the Ring camera, it suggested to me that it might be an illegal wiretap to be recording people’s audio conversations without their knowledge. Aren’t a lot of these things potentially?
[00:08:44] Jolynn: I’m not really sure if there’s a lot of case law about that yet. I did see a case in New Hampshire where a judge said it was not a violation. And I think they might’ve had a two party consent rule there, where the judge said it was not a problem. I think it should be a problem.
Uh, I think that the basis of the decision there was, well, the conversation was taking place in a public space where you should expect … other people may be able to hear you. But I think when you’re standing on somebody’s porch, you don’t necessarily expect that. I think if you’re in an apartment building… say, and you live across the hall from someone who may have installed a Ring doorbell, you may know, you may not know if you come in with a friend and you’re unlocking your door and no one else is in the hallway.
[00:09:29] I think you naturally would expect privacy around that conversation. So you can disable the audio on Ring doorbells. And I think Amazon suggests that people may want to consider doing that if they feel the need, but I don’t think Amazon is providing legal advice.
[00:09:45] Bob: Yeah. And I disabled my audio immediately out of fear of just that. And it also, it seemed just wildly unfair, but that suggests that there’s perhaps more serious implications to some of this. And you raised one of the most serious of all, what might be the national security implications of all of these unintended overheard conversations.
[00:10:07] Jolynn: Well, that question didn’t get as much uptake on Twitter, but I’m very interested about it. I think there was a big deal about whether or not there could be a Peloton in the White House because of the various things … it can hear with, microphones or cameras. And I just wondered about all the people working from home who are dealing with classified or secure materials, confidential materials.
If they’re sitting in their office on a Zoom call and you question about it being a Aoom call and what devices do they have around them that may be picking things up and should that be not permissible?
[00:10:44] Bob: It’s not hard to imagine a foreign adversary figuring out how to wake up all of these listening devices without people’s knowledge and using it as a sort of extensive spy network.
[00:10:55] Jolynn: It seems possible. I just think as we get more and more of these ubiquitous technologies, we should all at least be willing to discuss and have a conversation about what’s the right thing to do here for our neighbors, friends, and family.
[00:11:13] Bob: Have you ever walked into a house and said to someone, is anything listening to me?
[00:11:17] Jolynn: Yes, I have. I have
[00:11:19] Bob: I was hoping you would say that. And what was the reaction?
[00:11:23] Jolynn: These are friends of mine, so they were nice about it. And one time I said the refrigerator might be a good place for that model.
[00:11:34] Bob: You can always put your gadgets in the fridge if you’re worried about them. Professor Jolynn Dellinger from Duke University, thank you very much for your time.