Beware But Be Aware: Is Alexa Eavesdropping On All Your Conversations?

When Edward Snowden leaked confidential information about the US government, we were shocked. The National Security Agency (NSA) could search our phone records; mobile companies are required to comply with the law. NSA uses XKeyscore, a program, to search user activity on the Internet. Google stores searches made by users. Websites, most notoriously Facebook, track users’ searches and sell the information for relevant advertising. Essentially, nothing you search is private.

Despite knowing all of this information, we have not stopped using our phones and most certainly have not stopped using the Internet. We understand that we have no privacy, even in Incognito tabs, but we are willing to forfeit that in exchange for information and communication. Our reliance on the Internet far exceeds privacy concerns.

Voice assistants have as much privacy as any of our other devices. Then why are they considered so creepy?

One of the largest reasons for unease about voice technology is that we don’t understand how voice assistant privacy settings work. It is a very new technology and even with consistently huge increases in consumption, smart speakers are still not as popular as other devices like smartphones and computers. We know that the government and tech companies like Google track our activity, but we feel more comfortable using smartphones and computers because we choose when to access them. Smart speakers, on the other hand, are always listening.

The primary question to address is how do smart speakers work? Smart speakers are speakers with very sensitive microphones built into the hardware. The microphones are always alert, waiting for the wake word. The wake word to activate the device varies on whose speaker it is. Google’s wake word is “Ok Google”, whereas Amazon’s Alexa is “Alexa”. Snippets of conversations are recorded, searching for the wake word. If no wake word is found in the snippets, they are deleted. Once the wake word is heard, it activates the device, and the speaker records the user’s speech.

Alexa uses the Internet to send the user’s request to Alexa Voice Services where it deciphers the command, understands it, stores the request, retrieves the answer, and provides the user with a response. Other voice assistants work similarly, but for now, let’s focus on Alexa.

The most unsettling aspect of that process is that Alexa stores your command. Amazon’s servers store speech files on a cloud. However, don’t feel like you are losing your privacy when using a voice assistant. Your history is stored within your Amazon account, so only the appropriate username and password will retrieve the command history. Amazon also provides its Alexa users with the opportunity to delete request history; it’s as easy as saying “Alexa, delete everything I said today.” Not many people are aware of that feature given that it was added recently and so they assume the worst of voice assistants.

Amazon is setting up beta tests in hopes of accessing medical information safely through voice assistants. If voice technology can be trusted with sensitive patient information, then there is little for us to fear. Our information would be as secure as confidential medical data.

Of course, there are chances of hackers, but those risks exist on the devices we already own. It is important to clarify that voice assistants are not completely private and risk-free; caution should be taken when using them. But they do not bring greater danger than the technology we are accustomed to.

Snowden warned us that our Internet activity was tracked and so when we use technology, we keep that in the back of our minds. Almost no one went completely off the grid and swore to abstain from technology. When shopping sites ask for our credit card information, we are aware of the risks when we comply.

Voice technology is still in its early stages. It still has many improvements ahead of it. Companies will most likely secure more privacy features in the future as their usages expand. Smart speakers will grow in popularity and their frequent use will turn them into just another way to access the Internet.

Voice assistants have a lot of room for potential. For now, they are mostly used for music and weather reports, but as they continue to advance, they will have a greater range of capabilities. Additionally, voice assistants are incredibly easy to use. They do not require anything from their users other than their voices. This effortlessness will be essential for the aging population, who often struggle with devices like tablets and smartphones. Voice assistants are going to be instrumental later in life.

There is a lot of hope for voice assistants. Perhaps one day, scanning features could be installed so they can “see” our surroundings and locate belongings we can’t find. This could be a useful tool to help around the house and even improve senior living; maybe they will be able to check for irregularities in a room, such as a fallen person, and call for help.

Most of us are not engineers so we get nervous around new technology that we don’t completely understand. There is usually a lot of hype from tech-savvy people and sometimes we’re left out and left to stick to what we know. Tech companies should be more considerate towards the gap in knowledge to narrow the digital divide.

The industrySam Frons