Listen Up!

I love the Internet’s response to new forms of advertising.

Specifically, I’m talking about Burger King’s recent attempt to hijack TV viewers’ cell phones and Google Home devices.

In case you missed it, BK ran–and is still running–an ad that deliberately uses the “OK Google” activation phrase to trigger any gadget in earshot to start reading the Wikipedia page about their Whopper burger.

The response? The page in question was almost immediately edited to describe the burger as “cancer-causing” and to list cyanide in its ingredients.

Allegedly, a senior BK executive tried to change the page to something more complimentary, only to have his edits removed.

So, yeah, I think that’s the perfect response. Google, who apparently were not warned about the ad in advance, modified their software’s response to ignore the ad. While I’m sure many people appreciate that, it does raise a few questions.

Let’s not forget that most of Google’s billions of dollars come from advertising. Suppose BK had come to Google and said, “Hey, we want to tie a TV ad to your devices. Here’s a stack of money.” Does anyone think Google’s response would have been “Buzz off”? I’m guessing it would have been more along the lines of “How big is the stack?”

And then there’s the privacy aspect. This contretemps should serve as a reminder that “OK Google” does not use any kind of voice recognition to limit requests to the device’s owner. Nor can the phrase be changed. I’ve complained about that before: not only does it lead to multiple devices trying to respond to a single request, but it also makes it simple for outright malicious actions.

Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft are equally guilty here–Alexa, Siri, and Cortana have fixed, unchangeable triggers too.

And now, perhaps, we’re seeing why none of the manufacturers want to let users personalize their devices’ voice interaction. If we could change the trigger phrase, or limit the device to taking instructions from specific people, then the manufacturers wouldn’t be able to sell broadcast advertising like this.

If the only way you can prevent random strangers from using your phone is to turn off the voice feature, then you don’t own your phone.

Microsoft is making it harder and harder to turn Cortana off. Microsoft is also putting more and more ads in Windows. Do you sense a connection?

How long will it be before you can’t turn Siri and Google off?

And editing Wikipedia pages will only get us so far in defending ourselves.

Google was able to turn off the response to BK’s ad-spam. But they could just as easily have changed the response to read from an internally-hosted page or one housed on BK’s own servers. Either way, Internet users wouldn’t be able to touch it, at least not without opening themselves up to legal liability for hacking.

The most annoying part of this whole debacle is that now I’m craving a hamburger. I won’t be getting one at Burger King, though.


This post is a little bit later than usual, thanks to Mother Nature.

It’s raining here in the Bay Area. Despite the way our three-year drought has been monopolizing the media’s attention, the mere fact of rain isn’t really newsworthy. This is, however, a major storm*. We’ve had a couple of days of warnings and–all joking aside, perfectly justified–sandbag distributions.

* By local standards, naturally. Those of you in hurricane and monsoon zones may snicker derisively. I also grant permission for those of you in snow zones to laugh hysterically.

And, Pacific Gas & Electric workers have been making the rounds, trimming branches that might bring down power lines, and preparing as best they can to handle the inevitable outages.

Before I start discussing the failures here–and they go beyond QA–I want to be totally clear that I’m not dissing PG&E’s field employees. They do a vitally-necessary job that carries a high level of risk even in the best circumstances. Kudos to them.


At 7:59, I got home from driving Maggie to BART. This had nothing to do with the weather; I drive her most Thursdays; that it means I’m not trapped at home if the storm knocks out the power is purely a bonus feature. I pulled out my phone and started to send her an e-mail assuring her that I had made it home in one piece. At 8:02, while I was still writing, the power went out.

I was a little surprised it had stayed on as long as it had. I finished the e-mail, sent it off, and made the rounds of the house, shutting off computers (yes, we do have multiple UPSes; doesn’t everyone?) At 8:10, I called PG&E’s automated outage line. This is a voice-recognition system. None of that old-fashioned business of punching numbers on the phone.

The first thing the system does is ask if you’re calling to report a dangerous situation, such as a downed line. I said “no,” and the computer played a pre-recorded message extolling the virtues of using the Web to report outages. Finally it asked “Are you reporting an outage?” I assured the friendly silicon that was exactly what I wished to do. It matched my phone number to billing records, asked me to confirm my address–it was correct–and then informed me that there was not a known outage in my area.

That was the first sign of trouble. I’ve never been the first person to report an outage, even when I’ve called immediately after the lights went out. By the ten minute mark, there’s no way I’m the first. So, Failure Number One: either the design of the system is faulty, in that it does not inform users when there’s a problem retrieving outage data, or there was a QA failure, and the error detection routines were inadequately tested.

But, OK, fine. I assured the computer that my power was out and I wanted to file an outage report. “OK,” said my electronic buddy, “is this a complete outage or a partial outage?”

“Complete,” I replied.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t understand that. Please say either ‘complete outage’ or ‘partial outage’.” Failure Number Two, and I put this one squarely on the design team. Why should I have to say “outage”? The important–and distinctive–information is the first word.

“Complete outage,” I said, willing to go along with the joke.

“Please hold,” PG&E’s electronic idiot said. A moment later, I heard a new voice.

“Hello, this is [name withheld to protect the innocent] in Sacramento. Do you want to get the status of an outage?” Failures Three and Four. Design flaw: I was not informed that I was being transferred to a human operator. Design or QA flaw: Said human operator was not alerted that the system had failed while taking an outage report.

NWTPtI was very polite and helpful. The first piece of information she asked for was my address. Failure Five–the automated system had correctly identified me; my account information should have been transferred along with my call. Again, this could be either a design or QA failure.

“There are three hundred forty six people affected by an outage in your area. There is no estimated time for the return of power yet, but a worker has been dispatched,” NWTPtI informed me, and then asked if I would like to be notified when an estimate was available and again when power was restored, and offered me a choice between text message or automated phone call.

I chose the latter, gave her a few more pieces of standard information*, and we concluded the call.

* Including the closest cross street. Shouldn’t that come from a geographical database as soon as she entered my address? I could call this another design failure, but why pile on? After all, it could have been some kind of perverse validation that I wasn’t pranking PG&E.

At 8:47, the power came back on. At 9:59–more than an hour later–I got an automated call from PG&E informing me that my power had been restored at 8:50. I’ll give ’em a pass on the time discrepancy; three minutes is within reasonable rounding error. Hell, I won’t even ding them for the delay in calling. It would be unreasonable to expect them to have enough lines to contact thousands of customers in real time.

But there’s still Failure Number Six: I’m still waiting for the call with the estimated time to make the repair. This one I’m throwing at QA. Either a policy change was made and nobody caught the resulting error in NWTPtI’s script, or software QA missed at least one condition under which a call wouldn’t be made.

The bottom line is that the power is on. That’s far more important than letting me know how long it’s going to take–I’d rather sit in illuminated ignorance than enlightened darkness–but really, PG&E, much as I respect your field workers, I’ve lost quite a bit of respect for your back office personnel.