A Blog by Jonathan Low

 

Dec 7, 2017

Managing the Privacy/Convenience Tradeoff With Smart Speakers

Voice is back! But so is recording it. And even though most consumers will automatically choose convenience over privacy, the implications of what is being copied, how it's used and who owns the rights to it is still being determined.

Assume, for the time being, that once the speaker is installed, everything said within listening distance is fair game. JL


Alex Wang reports in Medium:

Voice is becoming the main interface. Smart speakers try to be your virtual assistants; they change how you interact with your home, your smart device, and your favorite brand. Your voice will be cloud-processed. The design idea is that when it hears an activation word it wakes up and starts recording immediately, which means it’s possible for the device to store the conversation without the user’s knowledge. (But) deleting history on smart speakers may affect your personal experience.
Voice is becoming the main interface. It exists in many of the technologies we use everyday, such as home appliances, cars and mobile apps. We turn off the lights, order food, buy weekly groceries, or listen to your favorite recordings, all with one of the most natural technical interfaces — voice. This feature is provided by smart speakers such as Amazon Echo, Alexa, Google Home and Apple HomePod.
Speech recognition technologies like Apple’s Siri have been popular for some time now. However, smart speakers are game changers. Based on voice-activated artificial intelligence, smart speakers connect to third-party IoT devices such as thermostats or doors, allowing you to control your surroundings with sound. Smart speakers try to be your virtual assistants; they change how you interact with your home, your smart device, and even your favorite brand.
When you say a specific trigger, your voice will be cloud-processed. The design idea of ​​a smart speaker is that when it hears an activation word it wakes up and starts recording immediately, which means it’s possible for the device to store the conversation without the user’s knowledge. A prosecutor even issued a search warrant to see if the suspect’s smart speaker “Echo” contained evidence of the murder.

Is Your Privacy at Risk?
The smart speaker is equipped with an internet-connected microphone to continuously listen for trigger words. When the user triggers the smart speaker to make a request, the device sends a command to the server that processed the request, and then generates a response. The device can store audio clips remotely, and you can view and delete them online using Amazon and Google devices. However, it is unclear if the data is still stored on the server after the data is deleted from the account. Currently, devices only log requests, but as their capabilities become more sophisticated, they may collect more sensitive data such as phone calls and e-mail dictation.
Also, hackers can use the backdoor coding of these devices to listen to what you’re saying? Well, nothing is impossible, but both Google and Amazon have taken precautions to prevent eavesdropping. In addition, the audio files sent to their data centers are encrypted, which means hackers can not use smart speakers as a listening device even if your network is compromised. Someone who gets your Amazon or Google password and sees that your interaction history is the biggest risk, so make sure you use a strong password — you can even consider the two factors of security.
Protect yourself
If the Smart Speaker still feels uncomfortable listening to the conversation, you can manually set the device to silent or change your account settings to make your device more secure. You can turn on some privacy-enhancing settings, including buying password protection and voice notifications, so you know when the smart speakers are active and recording. You can also log in to your Amazon or Google Account to delete your voice recording (either individually or in bulk).

However, keep in mind that deleting history on smart speakers may affect your personal experience. Developers also have access to privacy design assistants such as Snips. However, usage may be limited due to the lack of internet connection on these devices.
Tradeoffs between Privacy and Convenience
Given the pace of growth in smart speakers and the Internet of Things industry, we can safely assume they are appearing more and more in our daily lives. This means understanding how they work, and what you can do to prevent them from violating your privacy. Yes, in theory smart speakers may pose privacy threats. However, they are not very intrusive because they only start recording when triggered by a specific word or phrase. It is unlikely that someone will intercept accidentally recorded private conversations with your device. Google, Amazon and other sites have been recording the traces of our Web activities for years, and now these companies are beginning to collect voice clips. In the pursuit of convenience, sometimes sacrifice privacy. For most users, convenience is paramount in this situation.

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