Voice Assistants Privacy Concerns

Voice Assistants Privacy Concerns

The near-perfection of the voice assistant technology and conversational Artificial Intelligence have made us more efficient in carrying out some of our daily activities. After all, one of the significant purposes of technology is to make life easier, only that we are paying an enormous price for this one. No, I’m not talking about the cost of purchasing a voice assistant. I’m talking about something more significant; our privacy.

Over the years, various privacy-related controversies and allegations have trailed the development of voice assistants. All the big developers in this industry have had their fair share of the issue. A report by Microsoft indicates that about 41% of voice assistant users have concern about trust, privacy and passive listening.

Another report has confirmed that it’s a usual practice for tech companies to store recordings of requests made by people, sometimes for years. The report further suggests that major voice assistant tech companies such as Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft and Samsung employ people whose duties are to review voice data gathered from users.

Beyond Mere Allegations

Sometimes in 2015, Samsung electronics was caught up in a controversy after the company warned its customers against having a personal discussion in front of their smart television with voice activation. This was Samsung admitting to collecting and listening to people’s information, which ultimately spiked a lot of privacy concerns.

In 2019, most of the big firms were revealed to have employed independent contractors whose duty was to listen to and review voice commands of end-users. In April of the same year, Bloomberg announced that Amazon-owned Alexa wasn’t safe and private as workers have access to what you tell Alexa. Even worse is the issue of accidental awakening; it was discovered that sometimes Alexa voice assistants make recordings of users even without a prompt.

 

Following the revelation against Amazon, other tech giants were also accused of breaching customers’ privacy; Microsoft’s Cortana, Apple’s Siri and Google assistant were also disclosed to be sending users’ information and discussion to third party contractors employed by the companies.

The companies, however, raised the defence of better development and service. They claimed that they needed to record and review these recordings because it would help improve the technology.

Nobody is against a better and well-improved voice assistant device considering the advantage. Still, it is only ethical to get the consent of people before recording and storing their conversations. Besides, contributing to such programs should be made optional.

Following the adverse reaction, most of the companies halted the voice assistant recording program while reviewing policies in line with privacy concerns. By August, Apple had issued an apology while also stating it was improving Siri’s privacy protection. Apple went further by setting Siri’s audio retention ability off by default. So it only comes on if the user wishes so.

Google promised to update its voice assistant policies so that it would enable it to reduce the amount of data the company stored significantly. Amazon added a new voice prompt which allowed users to delete every voice command said to Alexa within the day. Even Microsoft declared that they no longer use human review; implying that users’ information can no longer be accessed or listened to by humans.

Where do we go from here

Although the companies have made efforts to correct their past wrongs, however it is yet to be determined if they can be trusted again. For those of us who still love the ease that comes with using voice assistant technology, here are a few tips to ensure your privacy.

  • Ensure to turn off your speakers or microphone when it’s not in use
  • Read and understand the privacy policy of your chosen device. Some have better privacy protection policies.
  • Most devices now have an option to delete past recordings. Make use of this feature if you are not comfortable with the privacy policy.
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