Is less privacy worth the price of convenience?

Privacy will continue to be a hot-button word as technology continues to evolve. A challenging question will pin you to one side of this fence or the other. How will you answer?

It's getting next to impossible to avoid the subject. Just last week, on Facebook, a follower mentioned it was reported that Google Chrome installed audio-snooping code that listened to users. This "black box" feature was linked to the Okay Google Now hotword, but was reportedly listening in prior to the user calling up the service.

Not cool, Google ... everyone said in unison.

However, since its discovery, what is being called a "bug" has been fixed in the likes of Chromium on Debian.

This whole ordeal brings up a crucial issue that mobility has, does, and will face.


It's a single word that evokes more caution, concern, fear, and ire than nearly any other in the tech world. Everyone wants their privacy. It's one of the reasons why Ubuntu Unity came under the crossfire of so many users and groups.

But here's the thing--how do we enjoy such a feature as an ever-present digital concierge/assistant without handing over a certain level of privacy? If you want the always-on ability for Google Now, Siri, or Cortana, that feature will be listening... only (and this is important) if you opt-in. In other words, Google Now can be installed on your Android device and can be used without listening. Making use of the "Okay Google" hotword is simply a convenience that doesn't suit all users.

So what if you don't opt-in? The only thing you'll miss is the ability to say "Okay Google" and have Google Now automatically respond. What you gain will be an assurance your privacy isn't being invaded.

But seriously--even if you do opt-in to the hotword service, and Google does listen in... what will they hear?

At the moment, Google would hear this from me:

  • The typing of keyboard keys
  • Skyharbor's "Evolution" (my current favorite song)
  • The sound of a distant table saw
  • One of my cats crying out for another cat to play

That's it. Pretty boring stuff. Google won't hear top secret, double-agent spy speak from me. There'll be no secret sauce spilled. Worst case scenario, Google might hear me discuss a plot of one of my novels before it's released. I'm fairly certain I can say (with 100% confidence) Google isn't going to let slip that particular dog of war. Why? They have far more important things going on than to pry into and out of the shadows and silences of my world.

As the world shrinks, and technology evolves and expands, so too does our absolute control of our privacy. The more features you want, the more you give over. You want convenience, user-friendliness, and deeply integrated features--understand it all comes with a price. If you want absolute privacy, you'll live without the extended features and conveniences offered by the likes of Google Now.

For those who'd rather not risk Google listening into their daily comings and goings, you can disable the Okay Google hotword like so:

In the desktop web browser (or on ChromeOS), go to google://settings and then uncheck the box for Enable "Ok Google" to start a voice search (Figure A).

Figure A

Disabling Okay Google hotword in the Chrome desktop browser.
Image: Jack Wallen

For Android, do the following:

  1. Open Google Now
  2. Swipe right from the left edge to open the sidebar
  3. Tap Settings
  4. Tap Voice
  5. Tap "Ok Google" detection
  6. Tap to disable both From the Google app and Always on (Figure B)

Figure B

Disabling Okay Google hotword on Android Lollipop.
Image: Jack Wallen

I get it. Everyone is afraid their privacy is being invaded at every juncture. And rightly so. We live in a very invasive world now. Technology has managed to tie together nearly every aspect of our lives. Our browsers, phones, thermostats, homes, businesses, coffee makers, cars, reading glasses, instruments, cameras, televisions, appliances, watches, social networking sites... they all keep tabs, listen in, retain history, and (to a certain extent) spy on us.

For some, this simply isn't an acceptable transaction. The cost of convenience shouldn't be privacy. To those, the only answer is to disconnect, opt out of modern day convenience. But the idea that Google, Apple, and Microsoft are going to back peddle and risk breaking deeply integrated functions and features is simply, well, laughable. We know this isn't going to happen--and for the most part, shouldn't happen.

Not one of these companies has the desire to pry deep into the muck and mire of our personal lives. Google, Apple, Microsoft... they simply want to make mobility as connected and convenient as possible. And for the most part, they have each succeeded. We are connected and our lives are made far more convenient.

Is the cost worth the price of admission?

What do you think? Has mobile technology drawn a line that you aren't comfortable crossing? Or is the convenience worth the slight invasion of privacy?

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By Jack Wallen

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic, The New Stack, and Linux New Media. He's covered a variety of topics for over twenty years and is an avid promoter of open source. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website jackwallen....