It seems that the adage the ‘walls are listening’ has evolved to encompass much more than just the walls. With the advent of smart home devices providing us with automation akin to that of a Jetsons episode, you can now tell your lights to come on or even ask your fridge if you need to order milk! The home automation market is overflowing with possibilities with all major players getting into the game. All you need to do is purchase a few smart plugs or get a voice assistance device and you can now sit back on your sofa and say something like, “Alexa, Netflix and Chill” and automatically, the lights will dim and Netflix will start on your smart TV. All that’s missing is the pop-corn;!
The conveniences related to home automation were amazing a few years ago, now, those same features, supercharged with voice activation makes the experience even more seamless; and it is this seamlessness that make the technology a bit worrisome. For most voice activated home automation devices to respond, it first needs to hear a ‘wake word’. A wake word is what ‘tells’ the device that you’re talking to it. That’s why you need to say ‘Alexa’ or ‘Hey Google’ before give your command to your Amazon Alexa or Google Home Assist .
This means that your devices must be actively listening to everything you’re saying – even while you’re not talking to it.
The worrisome part comes in when you’re not sure what exactly your voice assistance is doing with all this data that it’s listening in on and how that is being fed back to you.
For example, if you’re in the kitchen and there is a voice assistant device nearby, and you mention on more than one occasion that you need to purchase a new blender. Then, when you’re casually browsing your favorite shopping website, you start to see ads or recommendations for ‘Top Selling Blenders’. The possibility of this happening seems very real and while this particular example may seem somewhat convenient and helpful, you do have to question where the privacy line has to be drawn.
The thought of data being recorded by voice assistants is even being pursued in a criminal case in the United States where a warrant was issued to Amazon.com for data that may have been listened to during a particular time when a possible murder was committed. [source]
Smart Devices are becoming less luxurious and chic to more affordable and functional. From the phones we use to the watches we wear, to the lights in the home and last but certainly not the least, the voice assistants in almost every room.
What makes these devices useful is the data that we feed them, what makes the devices worrisome, is how else they may digest the same data.
There are ways however that you can erase or pause any listening activity on your voice assistance device. With Google Home for example, there is a ‘Mute’ button on the device which basically turns off the listening feature of the device. A similar button exists on Amazon Alexa. Both devices also allow you to browse your voice search history and mange to a certain extent the data that has been recorded. While the data may be deleted or not accessible from your account, there isn’t any way of knowing if the data is archived elsewhere. Some manufacturers have indicated that data may be archived and used for purposes such as training and improving the devices Artificial Intelligence so that newer models would be smarter and easier for you to use.