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The Sonos Rage Wave

Update in progress…

Sonos shipped an update – and it contained a revised privacy statement. The new privacy statement can also be found here (de, en). Go read it, it’s shockingly well written.

Even more so considering the really complex situation Sonos is in – as an independent platform for streaming music from dozens of services, and in the future as a platform for digital assistants, they have a bundle of multilateral legal and contractual obligations that they need to handle on top of maintaining a technologically demanding product.

A case of really bad journalism can be found at Heise (Article in German): The article summarises some of the requirements from the actual privacy statement, but does not contextualise anything. It fuels outrage with the headline: »Sonos fordert mehr Daten, sonst droht Sendeschluss« (»Sonos demands more data, else the music stops«).

The title phrase hinges on the sentence »Der Kunde kann den neuen Vorgaben zustimmen, oder akzeptieren, dass sein Produkt vielleicht mit der Zeit aufhört, zu funktionieren.«, attributed to a Sonos spokesperson. (»The customer can accept the new conditions, or they can accept that their product over time may cease to function.«). That’s very bad wording on the side of the spokesperson, but it may well be that the context is lacking – it is pretty clear that if a streaming services API changes and you do not apply updates to your Sonos System in order to prevent acceptance of the new T&C it has no chance of working. Heise did nothing to clarify or contextualise this statement, though.

So what does Sonos do? The Sonos System in my part of the planet currently offers 45 primary online sound sources plus beta-level lab offers. A full list is supposed to be here.

For each of these, Sonos is a proxy providing identity and authentication – preferably in a way that does not entrust Sonos with your password and is nonetheless secure.

That means, you authenticate yourself to the streaming service (“It’s me, I am Kris and I am your customer”) and introduce the Sonos as a legal playback device to the service (“I am still Kris and this is my Sonos. Please send streams to this thing.”) . Ideally this is implemented without the Sonos System or the Sonos Online Services getting a chance to see for example your Google password which would be necessary to login to Google Play Music All Access (“GPMAA”), which is Google’s music streaming service.

Some streaming services grant Sonos special privileges – for example, GPMAA counts a Sonos household as a single device, even if it contains multiple Sonos Systems. You can consume more than one stream at a time – play back one thing on the Play:3 in the childrens room, and another thing on the Play:5 in the living room. That does not work with the same account using GPMAA and two cellphones. So Google needs a mechanism that allows a Sonos to identify and authenticate itself as a privileged device.

In any case, the streaming provider then trusts Sonos with the stream, which is intended for playback, and not for digital data capture or other forms of recording.

Also, there is a pretty beefy MIPS CPU, with a Linux kernel that is used as a wrapper around the device drivers for the playback hardware, and as a starter for a giant C++ blob which is then doing everything else. The whole thing is pretty overspec’ed, which allows them to provide software improvements through updates. Which they do – to my knowledge every piece of playback hardware they ever built is still supported within the limits of the hardware.

Sonos Systems differ from Bluetooth speakers. How?

With a Bluetooth speaker, your cellphone is downloading the MP3 stream from the streaming service, re-encodes it into whatever format the Bluetooth profile of your speaker requires (which may or may not require transcoding to a different format), and then send it out again, using Bluetooth.

That means: With a Bluetooth speaker

  • Your cellphones processors, Wifi-circuits and Bluetooth circuits are powered up and active all of the time during playback
  • You cannot remove the cellphone much from the speaker or you are running a risk of dropping the stream.

So you can’t run around with your phone, and it is eating quite a bit of battery, doubly so if transcoding is required.

With a Sonos, this is different: Here the device, which is plugged into a wall outlet, is requesting the playback and does all the processing. It is receiving the control commands to do that via Wifi, but that’s one command every half hour or so. The phone is not required for playback, and if you have a larger installation, you are free to move around inside it, or even leave the covered area. Other controllers – other cellphones or computers – can pick up where you left and work from there.

Also, multiple Bluetooth Speakers can’t sync.

That’s very different from a Sonos Systems, where all speakers in a system automatically get to know each other, elect a leader, find out a good way to talk to each other reliably, establish a common timebase, and then can sync up to play the same piece of music in a way that you can stand in the door between two rooms and not go insane from desync’ed playback.

You can in fact even link multiple speakers connected by Wifi into a single stereo pair and it works, no echo or distortion.

You can in fact, even calibrate the speaker and the room, using a well known microphone from a standardised piece of hardware, so that echoes, frequency distortions from furniture or people, and other circumstances that may affect the playback are taken into account. The effect is quite remarkable.

Of course that’s a relatively complicated piece of technology here, none of which is visible to the user: You plug it in, and it just works, and sounds quite good – awesome, actually, taking the size of the equipment into account.

Except when it doesn’t – and you call the support. I happen to know a few cases and circumstances where things didn’t work – Wifi did not mesh, rooms got dropped randomly, boxes jumped between two different APs, dropping frames, making playback stutter. Sonos actually has a support, they actually answer, and they actually know what they are doing, and they are equipped to grab relevant debug data from the systems.

All that of course needs a legal framework, which happens to be the privacy statement.

Now if you take the above into account and go through the text one more time, you can see how the various sections map to these things:

  • “Erster Kontakt” is about the website,
  • “Kauf” is about the purchase process,
  • “Registrierung” about the data you need to enter into their website in order to be able to bundle multiple physical devices into a single system,
  • “Verwendung” is then about the actual use you get out of the product,
  • and “Support” is about the debugging explained above.

The entire thing goes at great length to explain which Funktionsdaten are necessary for the product to work, and which of these are collected when and for what.

Then there are Zusätzliche Nutzungsdaten, which is your consumption profile. These are needed for Marketing only, and are easy to control, in the app.

This has been “off” in my app, so it may have been around for a long time and I turned it off, or it’s opt-in now.

So all in all, nothing to see here really:

A company changing their privacy guidelines, actually making them really easy to understand, and providing a very clear and easy to understand distinction between data necessary for the delivery of the service and additional data they would like to have for product research and marketing.

And a newspaper that really could do a much better job at delivering context instead of making rage waves.

Published inErklärbär

10 Comments

  1. kris kris

    The previous version of the Sonos Privacy Guidelines is available here:
    Archive.org Link

    As you can see, while the phrasing improved a lot, some technical background has been removed. The privacy policy did not change a lot in terms of content, with clauses regarding Alexa integration and similar things being added.

  2. What did Sonos do to clear up the mess? Did they reply to a single Tweet or Blog entry in the Rage Wave? Do they care?

    • kris kris

      Sonos Community Management has a style that mostly works behind the scenes instead of using public communication. I am pretty confident that the “Update” part of the Heise article linked above, which is the only part of the Heise article that actually points to the original source, has been added after nudging Heise behind the scenes.

      Note that I do not have actual information on this. I am extrapolating from previous interaction with Sonos and from the wording used in the update section.

  3. Hanno 'Rince' Wagner

    I think we are mixing two points here: Feature-Updates and Security-Updates.

    I have no problem that I have to accept new guidelines for new features. I still can think about wether I want to have these new features and allow the data colletion or not.

    But I have to be able to not have these features – but security updates. So, if there is a problem with in the Sonos Environment where someone could “hack” in (however) and steal data, then I want a security update which gives me the assurance of a secure system – without new features.
    The step right now is to hold the gun at my head and to say “either you accept the new features or you won’t get security updates” – and _this_ is wrong.

    The right way would be to have two offered branches, and that is what I am missing here.

  4. Boris Erdmann

    Hanno,

    what you ask for is exactly what you get — and you don’t need two branches for that: Iirc, the new license states that it will use/process the extra data for the new feature only in order to provide the functionality of the new feature and when you use it. So, if you don’t use it no extra data will be collected/used/processed. — The new feature being the ability to control your system remotely through (online) services. Hence laying the foundation for voice control through Amazon Echo (or Google Assistant). My understanding from a rough read-over.

  5. Oliver

    Hi,
    I think you are missing the point here. Your whole article is about why the new policy is necessary, or good or not so different versus the previous one. That’s okay, and can be discussed.
    For me the point is that I spent a lot of money for a sound system. For me privacy is important. So I actually did read and compare (and downloaded) the privacy policies, and found Sonos okay.
    Now Sonos changed the policy. And I don’t like the new policy as it gives Sonos substantiially more rights, and less opportunity to opt out. Again, we can have different opinions about it, but that’s not the pioint.
    Normally, I could then stick with the current Firmware version, and continue with a piece of hardware at my own risk. Like sticking with an old printer driver, or with Windows XP.
    But not with Sonos. As soon as a new firmware becomes available, they downgrade immediately the existing apps. For example you can no longer add new speakers. You can no longer change the advanced settings of your local media library. And by the way, the menu about the the privacy settings also is no longer accesible.
    You write about an “easy to understand distinction between data necessary for the delivery of the service and additional data they would like to have for product research and marketing.”. Well, may I ask why your name, your email, your location are necessary to stream music from my local NAS? It clearly says in the policy that you MUST provide this data, and cannot opt out. One of the big changes by the way.
    So, for me the point is that I spent thousands of Euros, and now Sonos cripples the capability of my system, not some time in the future, but as of this week, unless I upgrade the firmware and accept a new policy.
    And this is unacceptable and has nothing to do with all the technical discussions you write about.
    Cheers

    • Bert

      @Oliver: I totally agree with you on this issue. I’ts the way Sonos is forcing this on it’s existing customers that’s bothering me. I’m mailing on this matter with Sonos customer care and the reactions I get are diffusing at best and very unsatisfactory.
      What’s also disturbing is the new sentence on the last page of the new privacystatement: “Your continued use of the Service or Products after any modification to this Statement will constitute your acceptance of such modification and updates.” So Sonos can make any change they want in the future and when you continue to use your system you automatically have accepted everything they dictate. That’s very disturbing!!

      • Oliver

        Update:
        I have written to Sonos Support. And they confirmed, that
        – if one of my speakers needed a repair,
        – if I would do a hardware reset,
        -if Google would introduce certain specific changes to Android
        all of this would “brick” my current setup of speakers, unless I accept the new pricacy policy and upgrade.

        By the way, Bert, just by logging in and writing to support, you technically already accepted the new privacy policy. Sonos confirmed in writing that accepting the (new) privacy policy is a prerequisite to contacting support.

        Lastly, in the meantime I checked the privacy policies of Raumfeld and Bose. All ask a lot less data and give more oprions to opt out. So the claim of Sonos that the data is required for functioning is utter nonsense.

        • Bert

          Update:
          That’s why I didn’t log-in but contacted support by email (privacy@sonos.com) 😉
          Sonos’ attitude in this matter is not customer-friendly at all and the replies I received were arrogant and kind of intimidating (you have to accept our new policy otherwise your system could and will get bricked). Because of that I started looking for an alternative system last week.
          And I found one. This weekend I traded my Sonos-system for a complete new Denon Heos system.

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