Smart Speakers And Their Potential Privacy Concerns

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Eric Lieberman Managing Editor
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Some of the biggest companies in the U.S. have been selling smart speakers, which means they are artificially intelligent and can listen to people’s conversations. The extent to how much unwanted monitoring, or more aptly recording, is being conducted depends on the degree of privacy people are willing to give up — something that can be said for a lot of technology.

Amazon devices equipped with its virtual assistant known as Alexa, for example, record everything a person says in its vicinity — but only if you say “Alexa” or whatever customized “wake word” used to activate the device.

“When your device detects the wake word, it streams audio to the Cloud in order to process your request and return a response,” an Amazon spokesman told The Daily Caller News Foundation.

That information is compiled in a digital log. It can be accessed and ultimately deleted by the owner of the device (e.g. Amazon Echo, Amazon Dot) through the settings in the synced Alexa app or online.

The same, for the most part, goes for devices employing Google Assistant, which according to the company, “are designed with privacy in mind.”

“Google only stores voice-based queries received immediately after recognizing hotwords ‘OK Google’ or ‘Hey Google,” a Google spokeswoman told TheDCNF. “If the hotword is not detected on that short snippet, the snippet is immediately discarded. If the hotword is recognized, the data including the query contents are sent to Google servers for analyzing and storage in personal activity history.”

Not everyone is so convinced — if not about how the technology is currently employed, then how it could be in the future.

“‘When you read parts of the applications, it’s really clear that this is spyware and a surveillance system meant to serve you up to advertisers,” Consumer Watchdog President Jamie Court told The New York Times. These companies are “basically going to be finding out what our home life is like in qualitative ways.”

He supports his notions through the patent details.

“The processor [of the computing system] is configured to use the first data to determine which user is occupying a smart-device environment” and “the properties comprising age, gender, fashion-taste, mood, preferred activities, medical condition, or some combination thereof,” the official filing reads.

Court’s group published a study reviewing the patents and their apparent intentions.

“[There are] multiple systems for identifying speakers in a conversation and building interest profiles for each one,” Consumer Watchdog wrote. “Patents show both Amazon and Google could also use voice profiles to associate behaviors with individual members of the household, in order to better target ads.”

It continues:

Dozens of patent applications for Google’s smart home devices detail scenarios in which Google may share data from smart home devices with third parties, including businesses, who can then use the data to make inferences about users’ sleeping, cooking, entertainment, and showering schedules. These inferences, Google says, ‘may help third-parties benefit consumers by providing them with interesting information, products and services as well as with providing them with targeted advertisements.’

Amazon says it does not use voice recordings for targeted advertising — at least for now. It does seem to want people to interact with ads, however.

There are several other components of the licenses for Amazon and Google that worry the consumer advocacy group, like a technological methodology for “inferring child mischief” and a system for “recommending products based on furnishings observed by a smart home security camera.”

Law enforcement agencies seeking as much potential proof as possible is also a point of contention. A murder case, which was ultimately dismissed by the presiding judge, centered around the admissibility of evidence extracted from an Amazon Echo.

Amazon has “law enforcement guidelines” specifically for its cloud computing arm known as Amazon Web Services, which is integral to the smart speakers since “Alexa is a cloud service.”

“It’s good that Amazon appears to require a search warrant for account content, and some kind of court order to get non-content subscriber information,” Electronic Frontier Foundation Staff Attorney Stephanie Lacambra told TheDCNF. “But I don’t know how faithful they are in enforcing this policy.”

And it’s not just about smart speakers specifically.

“We can safely assume that the number of live microphones scattered throughout American homes will only increase to cover a wide range of ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) devices,” Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst at the ACLU wrote in January.

Like Lacambra — who said that of course “there are a number of privacy concerns when voluntarily placing a recording device in your home that has the capability of being remotely accessed” — Stanley says it’s a “significant thing to allow a live microphone in your private space.”

“Software, once a mic is in place, governs when that microphone is live, when the audio it captures is transmitted over the Internet, and to whom it goes,” Stanley continued.

And, once again, like Lacambra, Stanley fears that law enforcement will unduly get its hands on data scooped up by smart-speakers, such as without a warrant.

“Unfortunately the existing statutes governing the interceptions of voice communications are ridiculously tangled and confused and it’s not clear whether or how data recorded by devices in the home are covered by them,” Stanley added.

Apple released its own smart speaker system in June of last year by embedding its Siri technology, an attempt to keep up with competitors in the growing sphere. In typical fashion, the price point for the Apple device is relatively high, which is likely contributing to a very recently reported tepid response from the market, potentially along with privacy concerns.

Much of the public has grown highly distrustful of Facebook, after a number of recent events and revelations showed that the company was compiling a lot of user data and sharing it with third-parties. Many now argue that Facebook doesn’t care enough about if its platform is manipulated as long as it considerably profits.

But other companies seem to do the same, if not engage in at least similar practices.

“Privacy-conscious users should read Amazon’s privacy policy carefully before signing up for an Alexa-connected service to determine whether they are comfortable with consenting to the recording and sharing of the information necessary for use of the service,” said Lacambra.

When asked what is the best way to balance the desire for advanced technology and concerns that privacy may be violated in the process, Lacambra said companies should consider “adopting privacy practices that limit data collection on users,” showing that it’s both a responsibility of the user and technology provider.

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