The Dangerous Bi-Product of Voice Triggered Devices

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Amazon Echo is amazing, and is on a disruptive path. Not only is Amazon Echo a quality speaker for listen to streaming music, it changes the way you access and interact with information (“the internet”). Tired of Googling the weather, cooking recipes and basic day-to-day information?

Ask Alexa, Echo’s “intelligent personal assistant”, any question and she (a female voice) answers. Better yet, it’s the software, not the hardware, that matters. As “the brain” (Alexa/the Echo operating system) improves, Amazon Echo improves. You don’t necessarily need a new hardware version every two to three years, as with most gadgets.

Habits are Changing

Just ask for the weather report and Alexa tells you, courtesy of AccuWeather. You can set an alarm by voice commands, and of course purchase Amazon products. Echo changes the way you listen to music. No more clicking on an app on your smartphone or tablet – with Echo, just say the name of the streaming service and then what you want to listen to. The speaker isn’t for audiophiles, but it is good.

All in all, Echo removes the need to go to the laptop, tablet or smartphone to “do things” or look up information. We all have our favorite gadget in the family room. I have my smartphone, a laptop and two tablets – one for the web and one for streaming music. A $150 tablet and a sound bar do everything Echo does, without voice control. And one more thing..

Reviews give Echo 4-5 stars. PCMag.com gives it 4 stars and rates it an “Editor’s Choice”. “The app displays a history of all of the questions you ask Alexa,” the review reads. This lit a red light for me – I will be putting a live microphone in my family room and Amazon will hear everything that is said in my private life.

I am a believer in internet of things – internet powered devices are going to be ubiquitous in 10 years. But there is one issue that Amazon, Google and the IoT industry has yet to deal with – privacy.

Gateway Service

When I use my tablet and am Googling information, of course Google tracks my every move. But there is a sort of fragmentation of what we do on our mobile devices as opposed to the centralized Echo.

Echo is a gateway to many other apps, and also to Alexa’s massive “brain”. When we ask Alexa to stream music on Spotify, it is saved in her brain. When I Google a keyword it is saved. When I’m playing a movie, making purchases, or checking the weather on AccuWeather, all of this is saved.  Alexa knows about all my activity on the apps that integrate with it.   

Voice triggering

I have “OK Google” turned off on my devices, like many (or most) people. I don’t want an open microphone in my home. Do you?

Whatever Amazon tells me, I’m skeptical. Will I receive ads based on conversations I have with my wife? Imagine speaking of a health issue in the house and waking up to see “Recommendations” for a medicine or medical procedure on Google or Amazon?

The key to Amazon Echo and Internet of Things is setting rules and building trust. Privacy is the “bi-product of the product.” The early adaptors may not mind, but I’m not sure every American is going to put a live mic in the kitchen or family room without knowing their privacy is ensured.

A third party organization with standards is the only way to regulate IoT privacy and allow both manufacturers and consumers to choose the right balance between product quality and privacy. It’s not black and white. Some people won’t mind a live mic that turns your words into ads and special offers. Think of the Energy Star standard for energy efficient consumer products. Most of us recognize it and know how to read it.

I suggest the creation of the Privacy Star, for gadgets. Standards could be:

Zero Privacy Expectations: Live microphone or camera possibly listening and watching everything, and transforming all seen or heard information into advertising content, including selling information to other vendors.

Privacy Gold Standard: Live microphone or camera used on Internet of Things device, but zero data is saved. You speak, the device performs, and zero data of what you did is available to anyone besides you.

I love Amazon Echo and Internet of Things, but for now I’ll stick to my keyboard and manually turning on and off lights. My sense of privacy is a lot more information than the current benefits of IoT. It will take a much, much better product for me to reconsider the trade-off.


 
 
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Yonatan Levy