There are no secrets in the world
I was watching a movie on Netflix. Suddenly, the voice assistant of the laptop, Siri, got activated and said, "Siri aha?". Then after a pause the colour bubble of the Artificial Intelligence (AI) ventriloquised to add, "I didn't get that. Could you try again?" Normally I would have ignored such a minor glitch. Then I remembered the same thing happened the day before when I reached a particular spot of the movie that I had resumed watching. Intrigued by the deja vu, I stopped the player and moved back the time-slider by 10 seconds. There it was: Siri popped up again in an inquisitive tone. I noticed that the appearance of Siri coincided with a dialogue that contained the compound word "serial killer." The actor's enunciation of "serial" with a dropped letter 'l' made Siri interpret "serial" as "Siri aha"! After solving the mystery of my "serial killer" (read, spoiler), I was happy to return to the thriller on serial killers. Then again, it made me eerily aware that I was not watching that movie alone; the AI embedded in my device was watching it with me.
It is not only Siri, other voice assistants are also known for remaining "awake" and listening to everything we say, hear or do. The digital assistants are designed to react only when they hear a supposed "wake-word". In the case of my laptop, Siri was the trigger-word. In popular culture, particularly in speculative fiction, we have seen the use of a trigger phrase as a post-hypnotic suggestion. For instance, a deep-cover agent can be activated to do something once they hear a certain word. This trigger can practically be anything, even a piece of music. It's like a coded command specifically programmed into an individual to make her or him do certain things. In Steven Spielberg's 2001 movie AI: Artificial Intelligence, a trigger phrase was used for an android child to love the speaker permanently and unconditionally. In Zoolander, Derek was programmed to kill the prime minister of a country once he had heard the song "Relax".
My Siri experience led me to a blog of a consumer watchdog. The article essayed the Orwellian future that is already here. It says, "the gadgets eavesdrop on everything from confidential conversations to your toilet flushing habits". Google's "OK, Google" and Amazon's "Alexa", for instance, have the potential to convert all our voice data for massive information gathering and intrusive digital advertising. These devices start tracking the moment they are turned on and keep on building profiles of the users as potential customers.
Say, for instance, an algorithm in the device identifies statements of interest, e.g. "I love tea", and the company will target the speaker for related advertising. While there is comfort in knowing that the Internet of Things (IoT) can be used to help us remotely manage our smart TVs or ACs with the sound of our voice, the reality is that these devices are snooping on us to draft a pattern of our activities. The convenience aspect of it often makes us complacent over the confidentiality issue, allowing business organisations as well as law enforcement agencies to derive information from smart devices. Then there are the hackers and identity thieves; they are the hustlers who thrive on this information highway.
The moment you use the voice assistants to search the web, launch apps, and use other interactive functions, Google can go for trigger recording. One such transcript, mentioned in the watchdog blog, shows Googling capturing this conversation: "If you ever get booked down to my house for some reason, the key safe for the back door is 0783." The user had unwittingly given away the passcode to his house while chatting with a friend. Just this morning, while watching a suggested video on Facebook, I heard one recently nabbed actress apparently giving her statements before the secret service. Now how a Youtuber sitting in North America would access the conversation is anybody's guess: we do not need artificial intelligence to demystify it. The fact remains, we are living in a world that does not like secrets. There are human and non-human trackers out there to make us all "transparent citizens" or automatons without freedom. Is it a good thing for an individual, even for a state, to be in a system that has no secrets?
Adam and Eve did not have to worry about their secrets; the moment they had one, they had to hide. When Robinson Crusoe was marooned on an island, he did not have to worry about his secrets. But we do not live on an island; we live on continents with multiple territorial, social, political, and cultural borders. German sociologist Georg Simmel was one of the forerunners to reflect on secrets. Secrets for him are all about ownership. It creates a relation between the secret's owner and the other who does not know it. Sometimes, we need to maintain secrecy to forge relationships. The fallacy of a Facebook fraternity is a case in point, where we create false impressions to make our "friends" like us. Social media also gives us the impression that we can be free by joining the masses. Our availability as well as our willingness to make ourselves revealed out in the open has allowed external agencies to feed on us. In an information society, individual secrets, state secrets, and the secrets of technology, however, got intertwined.
The advent of technology has increased the enthusiasm of governments to gather, share, and cross-reference more and more data about its own people. The state encroaches on our private lives in the name of security. We share our secrets with the state—through the biometric ID cards, bank chips, TINs—thinking that it is our duty to be transparent citizens. We lose control of our freedom so that the State can take control of our lives. Unfortunately, the use of such data by the other categories is shrouded in mystery. State secrets often assume the aura of control, if not an abuse of power.
The myth of security often makes us forget that our secrets are but manifestations of our freedom. In light of the fast changes in digital society, we need to rethink how we view secrets, especially in relation to our freedom. With more and more of our lives being monitored and controlled online, the future of secrecy is anybody's guess. For Simmel, "the secret is one of man's greatest achievements." But now it seems, more than ever, with no control over our secret lives, human beings are less likely to remain either free or sane. The nexus of digitisation, secrecy, privacy, and transparency is going to impact our freedom and our essential humanity. Otherwise, only machines will be on cloud nine!
Shamsad Mortuza is Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB), and a professor of English at Dhaka University (on leave).