Sonos founder John MacFarlane’s vision of a connected speaker that could wirelessly stream music was too seductive to resist for a broadband and connectivity junkie like me. Even before the product evolved from a concept to design, I was sold on the idea of Sonos and what it represented. For years, the company’s speakers have been the preferred way of listening to music in my tiny apartment. But it is time to say goodbye to Sonos — though, not for the reason you might think.
Yes, most of my Sonos gear is over a decade old and needs an upgrade. And I’m told their new speakers look nicer and sound better than ever (of course, they only need to sound as good as the high-def stream on Spotify). But I am not going to be upgrading with Sonos. This has nothing to do with their core product. The problem is that they are bundling the speakers with voice assistants, specifically Amazon Alexa and Google Home. Yes, you have to turn on these features and enable them for use, but I remain highly suspicious of what can be done surreptitiously. You can blame it on a growing mistrust of the big tech, and their decision making processes.
While a lot of energy and attention has recently been focused on the dubious behavior of Facebook, both Amazon and Google have largely been able to dodge the glare of big media. “Amazon’s public image as a cheerfully dependable ‘everything store’ belies the vast and secretive behemoth that it has become — and how the products it’s building today could erode our privacy not just online but also in the physical world,” writes Will Oremus. Amazon constantly prompts you to tag your identity with your voice on Alexa, without as much as disclosing the rules around what it can and cannot do with this data. Not even kids are immune from its desire to collate and tag everyone and everything.
“Just because tech could be misused doesn’t mean we should ban it and condemn it,” argues Andy Jassy, the head of Amazon’s cloud business. I completely agree. I have nothing against personal assistants. I think they are a great way to interact with our devices. As a matter of convenience, they make perfect sense. But in terms of personal decision-making, getting one is a terrible idea. This is especially true at present when we have no rules or regulations around personal data. It is particularly difficult to trust companies like Jassy’s that appear to be committed to opaqueness and are unwilling to come out and say what they will and won’t do with our information.
The situation is made worse by the fact that both Amazon and Google have less-than-stellar records on privacy and consumer data. Simply put, one wants to sell you more shit you don’t need, while the other wants to push advertisements that sell you shit you don’t need. And though they might pause for fear of flak from the media, they are both just a signature away from selling their customers’ data to any government.
Google, for instance, insists that it has consumer interests at heart, and yet, again and again, it is found weaving a web of privacy ambivalence. Only this week, there were reports that Google employees have access to voice samples and can listen to recordings of those who use its virtual assistant. And the only reason Google acknowledged this behavior is because it got caught and reporters started asking questions. These sleights of hand by the likes of Google, Amazon, and Facebook make me skeptical of any device that embeds their technology.
I had initially pre-ordered the new Bose 700 headphones as an upgrade from the old Bose noise-canceling headphones, but I was compelled to cancel the order once I saw that they were embedding Amazon and Google in their software. I don’t want those in any device that I carry on me. Even if they are not enabled. Not only did Bose lose this sale, but they also lost this customer. I am unlikely to go back to them in the future. Naturally, this is not just an issue with Sonos and Bose. I was in the market for a suitcase, and at the recommendation of my friend Matt Mullenweg, I was going to try G-Ro. Then I went to their website, and they kept aggressively popping up Facebook Messenger and cookied me with a Facebook cookie. Just like that, they lost all credibility.
At present, there is only one Silicon Valley behemoth willing to come out and be clear about its approach to privacy and data: Apple. And while its execution is not ideal — it still uses Google as its default search option in its browser, and it has been unable to police abusive behavior inside the apps that pass through its App Store front door — it is still the closest we have to a massive technology company that gives two hoots about the privacy of its customers.
Which brings me back to my speakers. Lately, I’ve been using Apple’s HomePods. They are currently blasting out Morcheeba, my favorite music from a time when technology behemoths were just cute and cuddly startups that hadn’t started biting the hands that feed them.
This first appeared on my weekly newsletter dated July 14, 2019. If you like to get this delivered to your inbox, just sign-up here, and I will take care of the rest