Privacy in the Age of Voice-Activated Digital Assistants

The personal digital assistant is taking off.

Google now has Google Home and Google Assistant. Apple has Siri. Microsoft has Cortana. And, over the holidays, Amazon sold millions of its voice-controlled assistants, known as Echo or Alexa. Alexa topped of Amazon’s holiday best-seller list, and that’s saying something because Amazon shipped over a billion items this past holiday season.

Alexa was everywhere at the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show. Ford and Volkswagen announced Alexa integration into its new cars. And you’ll also find Alexa’s voice assistant in future refrigerators, stoves, washing machines and robot vacuums.

Amazon sells three Alexa-powered devices: the Echo, Echo Dot and the Tap. Alexa can give you news, weather, play music, set timers and alarms, add items to a to-do list or a shopping list, it can order items directly from Amazon, answer questions and even tell jokes.

Depending on how it’s set up, it can tell you what’s on your calendar, add appointments to it, read audio books to you, order Domino’s pizza, tell you how long your commute is and even order an Uber ride.

If Alexa is set up with other connected devices in your home, it can turn on and off lights, change the thermostat and lock or unlock your doors.

According to Amazon, Alexa is always on listening for her wake word. Once the device hears “Alexa,” “Echo,” or “Amazon,” it starts recording to Amazon’s cloud servers.

Investigators in Bentonville, Arkansas, believe Alexa could possibly help in a murder case. Amazon officials say it wouldn’t have recorded the goings-on at the scene unless the wake word was triggered.

“The best-case scenario would be that the victim called out to Alexa to ‘call police I’m being stabbed,’” says Northwestern University law professor Jim Speta. “But if he didn’t say the wake word, there shouldn’t be a recording.”  

Amazon has vowed to protect customer privacy. “Amazon will not release customer information without a valid and binding legal demand properly served on us,” said company spokeswoman Kinley Pearsall. She added that “Amazon objects to overbroad or otherwise inappropriate demands as a matter of course.”

A child allegedly ordered a dollhouse from Amazon through Alexa to the surprise of her mother. Then, a TV report of that story allegedly set off a chain reaction of dollhouse orders in other homes with Alexa. There are safeguards to prevent online ordering – with a passcode – as long as the Echo owner implements them. There is also the ability to turn of voice ordering.

If owners have privacy concerns, there is a mute button so the device isn’t always on. But Speta says that privacy is a trade-off with convenience. “It all depends on how comfortable you are with your digital trail,” he said. “If you are concerned about all the information Google and Amazon are collecting, then you need to take steps to protect yourself. These companies save and use information, and they are building a digital profile of you. It’s convenience versus privacy.”

Even Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg got on the voice-controlled wagon spending 2016, building an artificial intelligence system to run his home.

There are some basic security steps consumers could take for protection. “Clearly setting up purchasing passwords is indicated since Alexa is so tied to the Amazon sphere,” says Speta. “Go and see what data is being accumulated. Think about muting Alexa instead of having it listening all the time.”

Speta joins us to further discuss the digital-assistant revolution and the privacy issues that may come with it.


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