Gadgets

How private is your privacy in the Era of Voice Assistants

Your Alexa-enabled device listens to you more than you think it does. That's why next privacy war could be over voice.

Nowadays, Voice Assistants has been an essential part of many lives. From Voice Assistants enabled Smartphones to Google Home or Echo devices, they become a member of our family. But, like a family member, are they trustworthy enough?

What is a Voice Assistant?

Don’t ask “What is a Voice Assistant?“. Ask Who is a Voice Assistant?

In a simple sentence, Voice Assistant is a digital virtual assistant which uses speech recognition and Natural Language Processing to listen to you and provide service.

It’s a Machine Learning system. Voice Assistant use Artificial Intelligence to process your queries in better ways.

How Voice Assistant works?

Voice Assistants are not “who” from the beginning. They evolve from “what” to “who” by Machine Learning.

Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning in Voice Assistant
Artificial Intelligence aka AI
Illustration from freepik.com

Voice Assistants collect data from our daily life and study them to provide us best possible experience.

Suppose, you commute to work everyday by public transport. Google Assistant or siri gets this data from your location history and inform you about the traffic.

As Alexa, Google Assistant, Siri, Cortana use user data and behaviour to make user experience better, they need to access to our various data. But, the million dollar question is, Is our data secured in the hand of virtual assistants?

Amazon Revealed Private Voice
Data Files

Alexa, who has Access to My Data?“- a question arises when a German Guy received someone else’s Alexa Recordings from Amazon!

He asked Amazon to send his personal data which is stored in Amazon’s Database after the EU GDPR Law takes effect. He expected his searches on Amazon, his orders details. But, what he got after 3 months shocked him. It was some zips. The total size was 100 mb. Along with his own search history, he found some(1700 wav files) recordings. When he listen to them, he found that belongs to someone else’s!

Those are Alexa Recordings but he never had any Alexa Echo devices. None of the voices in the recording was his.

Do Voice Assistants need to save our voice on cloud?

Let me clarify a fact.

If you think that your Echo device or Google Home device listens and responds using the small computer housed inside the device itself, you are WRONG.

Echo and Google Home devices need to stay connect to the cloud to process your queries, perform updates.

Amazon, Google need to save the user data and voice commands to research on them to upgrade(not update) the Voice Assistant.

Google’s privacy policies about Home don’t directly address voice-recorded issues. But its policies do say, “Google will share your information with companies, organizations, and individuals outside of Google if Google has a good-faith belief that access, use, preservation, or disclosure of the information is reasonably necessary to meet applicable law, regulation, legal process, or enforceable government request.” In brief, it appears that Google doesn’t ask for your permission to share your voice recordings.

Amazon do save your recordings but you can delete those from your Amazon account. But, the main problem is that how many users know that?

Voice Assistant only listen after the “Wake Word”

Amazon stated:

We’ve built in multiple layers of privacy protections into Echo devices. By default, Echo devices are designed to detect only the wake word “Alexa.” The device detects the wake word by identifying acoustic patterns that match the wake word. No audio is stored or sent to the cloud unless the device detects the wake word. Customers can review voice recordings associated with their account and delete those voice recordings one by one or all at once in the Alexa app or at https://www.amazon.com/alexaprivacy

An Amazon Spokesperson

Google Assistant also get activated after listening the “Wake Word”. But, the concern is we have seen too many errors (creepy laughter and inappropriate responses to name just two). In some of my experiences, google assistant wake up suddenly while in metro but there were no Wake Words. The Tech Giants is working to address this issue for sure.

More concerns to take in Account

What if, in a meeting, someone triggers the device to record the conversation without your permission?

Voice Assistant privacy concerns

In a movie( I can’t recall it’s name), I saw that a man cut off telephone line of his hotel room. As that could be used to hear him during normal conversations. It’s possible to hack a smartphone to record all the sound nearby. Then why a Echo or Home device could not be?

And if a phone can be rigged as a listening device for other than its original purposes, why not something built to listen all the time?

What happens if the device is hacked or modified to keep recording?

Should we just trust that Amazon’s , Apple’s or Google’s servers are impenetrable?

Amazon claims you can permanently delete the voice recordings, though wiping them degrades performance. Even if you’re smart enough to clear your browser history, are you smart enough to clear this, too? And what about the transcripts?

From some recent cases, we found that, Echo and Home devices could be an evidence of a crime.

J.A.R.V.I.S. vs Alexa, Siri, Google Assistant

You probably know J.A.R.V.I.S. from the Iron Man movie of Marvel. It is also a Voice Assistant, Alexa, Siri, Google Assistant are too.

But, they are not JARVIS. YET.

It will take time to be a JARVIS. Amazon’s developers need to listen and analyze your interaction with alexa to improve and evolve it’s voice assistant. Same applies in case of Google.

Voice Assistant alexa Google Assistant siri Cortana

It’s a Machine Learning System, as user do better interaction with alexa or Google, the Voice Assistant Technology gets improved. As technology improves, consumers will expand their use of it.

Thus, a real JARVIS will born!

Until then, We have to Wait and compromise our privacy for a traffic or weather report.

In Which way, voice is important in the future?

Technology means Run for better comfortability. In these many years, we have seen that speed and ease of access plays a crucial role to survive in the market.

Voice Commands will make our life easier, faster and better.

How? Let me give you an example.

Suppose, You want to listen to a song. What you usually do is:

  1. Unlock the Home Screen.
  2. Open the Music App.
  3. Search for the playlist.
  4. Tap on the Song to play.

And the Voice based alternative of this is:

“Alexa, Play Baby by Justin Bieber.”

That’s it, 6 words, a simple sentence. The song will started to play.

This is why Voice will be valuable in the near future.

Know what you Buy

As we see, Voice Assistants have many security and privacy concerns. So, should not we buy Echo or Home?

I am not saying you “don’t buy these”. I am saying, Know What You are Buying.

  • To have a Voice Assistant device, your private conversations may not be private no longer. Consider that every words you are saying, may ended up in hands of Google, Advertisers, police.
  • Don’t think your assistant only records your command, not someone having a shower. It is.
  • You own smart home gadgets? Have home automation? And they are connected to Alexa or Siri or whatever else? Think twice, as Home Automation is a great flaw for the hacks and privacy intrusions.
  • Go through all the terms and conditions and privacy policy of the device carefully.
  • Most importantly, learn how to turn off hearing when you don’t want to be heard.

That’s it.

It’s your voice, your privacy. Treat it carefully. Yourself. As Tech Giants are not going to take so much care of your privacy. (Not Yet)

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Image via rawpixelImage via freepikImage by pikisuperstar
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Manas Dattagupta

Manas Dattagupta, an Tech Enthusiast from Kolkata, India. Having experience in Programming and web designing since 9th grade. I started Blogging at the age of 12. I have started this blog in the November, 2018.

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