Digital assistants are becoming more and more integrated into our daily lives with the influx of voice-controlled smart home technology. Scientific American, which recently reported on last week's Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas, observed that there were dozens of companies offering new gadgets in the voice-activated sector, from light switches to toilets. The article asserts that while this tech is not necessarily new, "the voice-control frenzy begs a closer look [at] what the technology can (and cannot) do—not to mention the obvious privacy concerns over companies continuously gathering data from nearly every room in your home." They explored these privacy concerns and what exactly Alexa is doing with all this personal info.
Because the technology has become so omnipresent in the lives of many—speech-recognition software exists in our phones and devices like Amazon Echo and Google Home—and is connected to so much of our personal data (from what we search, which has never been private, to what we say). Every month the technology becomes smarter, using real-time experiences to adopt a more sophisticated approach to serving our needs (while simultaneously collecting more data). Amazon reports that it sold tens of millions of Alexa-enabled devices worldwide during the last holiday season, during which time users asked Alexa for cocktail recipes, to turn holiday lights on, and to queue up holiday music.
Amazon learns about consumers from requests. "More revealing than what Alexa was asked to do, however, is what Amazon learned about its customers," notes Scientific American. For example, the martini and the Manhattan were the most requested drinks and the most common person individuals in the U.S. called over the holidays was "mom," whereas it was "dad" in the UK. Such knowledge helps Amazon target users with customized marketing. However, many search queries are things Amazon already has access to when we surf the web and make purchases. "Privacy concerns are not necessarily deal breakers for many consumers, but they are certain to grow as the technology proliferates," the article predicts, listing smart refrigerators with internal cameras to intelligent toilets with Bluetooth connectivity.
It's not always clear when Alexa is listening. "All of this may seem invasive, to say the least, but for their part, Amazon and Google insist their smart speakers do not record voices until someone directly addresses the device with a 'wake word' such as 'Alexa' or 'okay, Google,'" the article explains. "It is possible to accidentally 'wake' such devices, however, which means it is not always clear when they are listening."
It isn't clear who should have access to what data. One final concern that Scientific American explores is how the data collected will be managed. "You can't manage access to that data the way you have in the past, such as with passwords tied to a single user account," notes Murray Goulden, a senior research fellow at University of Nottingham's School of Sociology and Social Policy in England. "It isn't clear who should have access to what data, because it will be contributed by multiple different members of the household. The privacy boundaries between us and those we live with are complex, both highly nuanced and changing over time."