June 3, 2020
The Rise of Anti-Tech Tech
The title of this post may sound like a song lyric, but it’s actually a reaction to the ever-deeper reach companies have into our homes and workplaces through smart devices like the Google Home and Amazon Echo. While this type of technology can be very helpful, there’s growing concern about what these virtual assistants are hearing and who might be listening on the other side.
And those concerns go beyond auditory eavesdropping. You can almost feel a shiver in our collective consciousness when a news story breaks about an incident such as travelers discovering that that the home they’ve rented has hidden webcams that the owner uses to monitor the property. Or worse, that those cameras are in unacceptable places like bedrooms and bathrooms, and have been “hijacked” by hackers who are now making the video feed available to viewers around the world.
Privacy on Demand: Having the Best of Both Worlds
You could argue that if you don’t want to have devices spying on you in your home, you shouldn’t have devices in your home. This is especially true since most have a so-called wake word (“OK, Google…” “Alexa…” etc.), but studies have found that similar-sounding words—even those emanating from a TV or radio—can wake a sleeping assistant. But, of course, getting rid of devices means losing all the benefits they provide, from hands-free access to information and entertainment, to home security.
This is where anti-tech tech comes in. A growing number of companies are developing devices that serve as a buffer between humans and their virtual assistants. Project Alias is a prime example. What the makers refer to as a “teachable parasite” attaches to a smart speaker and controls when the device is able to hear you and when it’s effectively “paralyzed” using inaudible sound that interrupts its microphones. Then, when you give the buffer device a command, it stops its jamming and plays a recording of the assistant’s wake word to reactivate it.
Another example of anti-tech tech is a wearable created by three professors at the University of Chicago. Profiled in the New York Times, this “bracelet of silence” jams nearby microphones using high-frequency sound waves, and can be turned on or off by the user.
With either the parasite or the bracelet, the result is that you get the best of both worlds: an open conduit to the internet when you want it, and reassuring privacy when you don’t.
It’s All About Balance
The rise of anti-tech tech is interesting, though not surprising. It seems that this is how technology tends to advance. We unveil amazing capabilities. We adopt and get to know them. We implement restrictions to keep them under control.
Light bulb > Dimmer switch. Alarm clock > Snooze button. Email > Spam filter. iPad > Screen-time app.
Ultimately, it’s about reaching a state of equilibrium. The key is to embrace the positive aspects of new technology while simultaneously identifying and managing its negative consequences. Anti-tech tech is reining in the incredible power of home assistants and other devices so that we can continue to enjoy all the advantages they provide without losing our sense of privacy and control. That’s a real win-win from our perspective.
Now the only question is whether Alexa will comply if we say, “Tell us where we can get one of those teachable parasites.”