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Is Google Clips the creepiest home technology yet?

How laziness is filling our homes with creepy, crappy tech.

What if cameras, but always on? This is the apparent thought process behind one of Google’s new offerings, Clips, which was announced at a product launch in San Francisco last night.

In short, Google Clips is a constantly-watching camera that uses artificial intelligence to capture images automatically. You set it up to recognise you and your loved ones, turn it on, and go about your life. The 55g cube then uses AI to decide whether something that’s happening would make a good picture and if so, it records a short clip. It also costs $249 (£189 to you and me).

This new always-watching camera fits in neatly with Google’s always-listening speaker. For nearly a year, the personal assistant Google Home has allowed people to check the weather, listen to music, or adjust their thermostat using voice commands. Last night, Google announced Home Mini, a smaller version of the speaker, which will essentially allow users the chance to have Homes throughout their house.

Which begs the question: why are we paying hundreds of pounds to have our lives taken over by creepy, invasive tech?

The short answer is: convenience. Why dim your lights when you can get Google to do it for you? Why laboriously lift up your finger and press down a shutter when Google’s happy to help? Never mind that the company saves all of your searches, tracks and records your location, and has meticulously profiled you in order to send more and more adverts your way. Why not let them literally hear and see you, too?

That’s not to say that Google Clips is the main culprit of creepiness. Much of Google’s presentation was made up of assurances about privacy, and the camera is not connected to a cloud, with photos stored on the device itself and an accompanying app. It also has an LED light which blinks while Clips is active to avoid people being filmed inconspicuously.

Yet even if Google isn’t using the camera to survey you in your home (reminder that it does store all your voice commands when you use its smart speaker), it is easy to see how Clips can be abused. There is always a potential that the device and app can be hacked or hijacked, even if this only on a low level. Burger King has already created a TV advert that forced Google Home to recite an advertisement for its Whopper burger (the ad features a Burger King worker asking “OK, Google, what is the Whopper burger?” - the prompt needed for Google Home to start its work).  

There is also a potential for average users to disguise or hide the device for notorious reasons, for people to spy on their partners, or – simply – for things to be caught on camera that you would rather weren’t. Parents are already happy that Clips will help them capture their kids, but privacy campaigners have long acknowledged that children are entitled to privacy from their parents.

It is a disturbing trend in technology that we are so willing to sacrifice our security and privacy for a tiny bit of convenience. Google Clips isn’t just creepy – it’s pretty crappy too. While the AI behind it is obviously impressive, the camera has no real use. Yes, your Instagram #candid might actually finally be candid, but who’s to say the device values the same shots you do? If, like the advert suggests, you set it up while baking, what happens if it thinks a great shot is you playing with flour while you wish it caught you folding the batter? Also, who are you? Why do you want footage of yourself baking so much? And if you do, why not just set up a normal camera and capture everything? Nothing has to go wrong with Clips for it still to be far from right.

It is trite to compare modern technology to Orwell’s 1984 or Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror (Season 4 is airing on Netflix soon, but woah! Spooky! Why not just watch real life!!). And despite the fact we allow spying, privacy-invading technology into our homes, we are far from these dystopian fictions. Why? Because unlike the unhappy citizens of Oceania, we willingly spend money to be watched by our telescreens.

Consumer tech-junkies find it boring or blasé to complain about privacy-invading tech, and it’s true that Clips wouldn’t have made it to market without an accompanying presentation on privacy from Google (though if you're not convinced this tech is dystopian, check out the presenter's genuinely enthusiastic and very, truly, definitely authentic delivery). But it is worrying that we, as consumers and citizens, are so apathetic about our own privacy, from the Snoopers Charter passing without fanfare to Amber Rudd’s attempts to end end-to-end encryption – not to mention teenagers tracking each other’s locations and Facebook knowing pretty much everything there is to know about you.

A house full of Google products might be a house in which you don’t have to stand up to adjust the thermostat or pick up a camera to snap Little Bobby playing with his chinchilla, but are these small conveniences really worth inviting a creep into your home? 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

Image: Getty
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Man makes $4bn in two days explaining Facebook to old people

Mark Zuckerberg's supposed blockbuster grilling by Congress was the bust it was always going to be, and he went home victorious largely by default.

On Tuesday a crowd gathered on social media for what promised to be a generation-defining moment, like the moon landing, or the OJ bronco chase. There was an air of tension. Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, was about to be dragged before the public and made to answer the Questions Of The People.

Many tuned in expecting a spectacle: namely, that of a socially awkward – albeit spectatularly wealthy – geek (like the one portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg in David Fincher’s The Social Network) get absolutely tarred and feathered. Twitter filled with jokes as the crowd grew impatient. Some of them were even good.

They underestimated Zuckerberg. Expectations for his performance before a series of committees of both houses of the US congress started out lower than subterranean. Yet even at the start, the 33-year-old billionaire did look absolutely terrified. Blinking vacantly in the strobe-flashes of the cameras, his expression while he sat listening to the senators’ seemingly-endless introductory remarks was not so much lost as “404 not found”.

But over the course of an often-agonising ten total hours of testimony before a joint sitting of the Senate commerce, science, and transportation committee, and the judiciary committee on Tuesday, and the House energy and commerce committee on Wednesday, Zuckerberg managed to come out not just unscathed but victorious.

In recent years, the Facebook CEO has made an effort to learn to be a more disciplined public speaker and a more responsive interviewee. On top of that, in preparation for this appearance Zuckerberg hired a crack team of outside consultants and lawyers to coach him, and even held mock hearings to hone his answers and manner, the New York Times reported. His investment paid dividends: Zuckerberg spoke with a glossy confidence and gave an effective and assured – though somewhat robotic – performance which left many of the lawmakers visibly charmed. He largely avoided answering questions he didn’t want to, and no lawmaker was able to press him to the point where he became visibly physically uncomfortable, as he has in the past.

It was possible to watch the Zuckerberg charm offensive play out in real time, not just on social media but on the financial markets. As soon as he began to talk, Facebook stock began to rise, and apart from a bit of a dip on Wednesday morning it pretty much never stopped. On Tuesday Zuckerberg’s confidence before the Senate committee gave Facebook shares their best single day of trading in two years, closing 4.5 per cent up. By the time Zuckerberg finished answering questions on Wednesday afternoon the stock price increase meant his own personal net worth had gone up by just under $4bn.

Far from the meltdown that many tuned in expecting to see, viewers were treated to Zuckerberg dealing patiently and even-temperedly with questions that occasionally betrayed a lack of even a basic conception of how the internet works, let alone Facebook. Some of his interrogators, especially in the Senate hearing on Tuesday, barely seemed to understand their own prepared questions even as they read them aloud.

This allowed Zuckerberg to get off considerably more lightly than he appears to have been expecting. A tantalising glimpse into the hearing we could have had was given to us when Zuckerberg accidentally left his sheet of notes open on the table when he left the hearing-room for a break. The notes, which were photographed, show that he was prepared for broader existential questions on subjects like workplace diversity and European privacy regulation which sadly, in the end, went largely unasked.

Instead, some lawmakers used their time to throw dozens of redundant questions to which we already knew the answers. Zuckerberg at times looked like he was struggling to suppress his obvious delight at answering questions which contained fundamental errors, causing howls of frustration on Twitter from the watching tech press, who understood the opportunity missed. Other times, lawmakers threw softballs, leading to such scintillating exchanges as the following, between Zuckerberg and Dan Sullivan, a Republican senator from Alaska:

SULLIVAN: Mr Zuckerberg, quite a story, right? Dorm room to the global behemoth that you guys are. Only in America, would you agree with that?

ZUCKERBERG: Senator, mostly in America.

SULLIVAN: You couldn't – you couldn't do this in China, right? Or, what you did in 10 years.

ZUCKERBERG: Well – well, Senator, there are – there are some very strong Chinese Internet companies.

SULLIVAN: Right, but you're supposed to answer “yes” to this question.

The main problem was the format didn't lend itself to a genuine search for insight. That's because any time it got half-way interesting, such as in an early exchange with South Dakota senator John Thune on the technical and linguistic difficulties involved in teaching AI bots how to accurately spot hate-speech, the dialogue would be abruptly cut off as each successive legislator ran up against their four-minute time limit.

Some legislators didn’t even bother trying to ask key questions about privacy and data protection, but instead decided to fawn or grandstand. Ted Cruz took an audaciously pompous line of questioning about how he felt Facebook was biased against the political right – without mentioning, of course that he actually ranked among Cambridge Analytica’s political clients.

The lack of coordination and preparation among his interlocutors allowed Zuckerberg time and again to cast Facebook as a company exists only to make people's lives better now and forever, rather than as a for-profit surveillance organisation. Time was wasted explaining over and over that, no, Facebook does not literally “sell data”, though John Cornyn, a senator from Texas, did pull off probably Tuesday night’s only true zinger with his muttered riposte: “well, you clearly rent it”.

There were some exceptions. California Democratic senator Kamala Harris, a former prosecutor, almost drew blood with a searing, sustained enquiry into whether there had been, when the company learned that user data had been shared with Cambridge Analytica, “a discussion that resulted in a decision not to inform your users”. In one of the few moments of the entire proceeding in which Zuckerberg found himself on the back foot, Harris pressed home the question a brutal seven times before her allotted four minutes were up.

His appearance before the House committee on Wednesday was testier in general but not much more enlightening. Anna Eshoo, a Democratic representative from California, scolded Zuckerberg for the opacity of the site’s terms and conditions, telling him: “you have to make it transparent, clear, in pedestrian language, just once, ‘This is what we will do with your data. Do you want this to happen, or not?’” Others pressed Zuckerberg for action controlling the sale of opioids on the Facebook platform. Zuckerberg nodded, smiled, and made the correct engaging noises at the appropriate times.

Despite his polish, the moments when Zuckerberg came closest to slipping up his mistakes were largely own goals rather than the result of incisive questioning. One particularly embarassing slip-up came during the Senate hearing when he accidentally answered “yes” to the question of whether the special counsel’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election had served Facebook with subpoenas. Scrambling, he hastily muddied the waters a few moments later with: “actually, let me clarify that. I actually am not aware of a subpoena. I believe that there may be, but I know we're working with them.”

Mostly, though, Zuckerberg was poised enough to avoid any question he didn’t want to answer either by promising to “have people look into it and get back to you” or with a robotically careful line like “I am not specifically aware of that.” If faced with a tough question, he could simply run down the clock for four minutes until the questioner's time ran out. And the more he talked, the more Facebook stock soared.

In the end, the most interesting part of the hearing wasn’t what was said in the room itself but in watching it all play out on social media, where commentators from the two different worlds of technology and politics collided at the same real-time event. The conversation was split right down the middle into two distinct groups: those mainly frustrated and confused by Zuckerberg’s jargon-laden technobabble, and those mainly frustrated and confused by the lawmakers’ inability to understand the basic working principles of Facebook or even the internet – though mostly they agreed with each other on their distaste for Ted Cruz.

If nothing else, it was illuminating to see just how wide the gulf between those two worlds was.

Nicky Woolf is a freelance writer based in the US who has formerly worked for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.