Voice Activated Products and Privacy

Microphones in Voice Activated Devices in the Home

For some time now we have had smartphones which you can talk to and get a response from, for example, Apple’s ‘Hey Siri’ and Android’s ‘OK Google’ – both very useful gadgets and which can greatly speed up the time it takes to get information.

Now, with the advent of in-home products such as Amazon’s ‘Echo’, the use of voice-activated devices in the Home is set to increase dramatically, so it’s fair to ask – are there any privacy concerns and do they outweigh the benefits of having such a useful device?

On the one hand, having a device that you can ask questions of as well as giving commands to, is clearly useful but the fact remains that to achieve this, the Echo contains an array of sensitive microphones that picks up audio from anywhere within range – certainly anywhere in an average sized room.

Unless you specifically mute the microphones, they are in ‘always listening’ mode.

The Echo doesn’t understand or process such audio itself – it sends it over the internet to Amazon’s data centres, which do the hard work in a fraction of a second and sends it back to the Echo device to respond back to you. However, and even though the Echo does not respond without hearing the trigger ‘Alexa’, the microphones are still functioning.

Similarly, the camera in the new ‘Echo Look’ – a camera-enabled device pitched for use in your bedroom or bathroom to help you with fashion choices – can also be switched off, but also has a default ‘always on’ mode.

The main privacy concerns relate to two main issues – security of the device and storage of voice data.

Security of the Device

Whilst Amazon has world-leading security at its data centres, we all know that if a device is connected to the internet then there is no such thing as 100% security – either there is a chance (however small) that the device can be compromised by hacking, or the data going to and from it can be intercepted.

It was revealed that Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg covers the Webcam in his laptop with tape, as does a former FBI Director who calls it “sensible”, so how useful would audio information fetched directly from within your home, be to the wrong people?

Once your information is in the ‘Cloud’, then you have to accept that you no longer have 100% control of it.

Voice Data Storage

Like Apple’s Siri, previous Amazon Echo recordings are kept by Amazon in order to improve voice recognition accuracy, although you can delete them through your ‘Manage my Devices’ page (but this does mean that the Echo will not “learn” from your past interaction with it). If a device is storing at least some audio from within your home, you need to be aware that it is being stored somewhere else.

Also, bear in mind that you may accidentally use a similar word to one of the trigger words in general conversation, which means that it is possible that the device can actively detect what is being said without you even realising it.

What is clear is that the Echo is a useful device and will no doubt be the first of many interactive devices forming part of the ‘Internet of Things’, but also bear in mind that like much of the tech that we use on a daily basis, it is also a market profile data gathering device, in a similar way to smartphones. In fact, the company actually reserves the right to serve ads based on the data that the Echo receives from you, so don’t be surprised when one day you ask Alexa a question about something and you subsequently get ads related to what you have said to it.

The Echo and similar devices are now in the home, including in private areas, so we need to make an informed choice about what that tech can do for us, versus the possible issues and risks that such technology can bring with it. If you uneasy about ‘always on’ microphones then possibly such a device is not for you, but if you are aware of the risks, then you can make sure that you keep as much control as possible, e.g. use that mute button!

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