Is a voice command system safe (or private) enough for you?

I love shopping online; the ease and convenience of shopping without the hassles of trying to find a parking spot and dealing with the crowds at the mall makes it attractive for me. Recently, one of the biggest online shopping events took place on July 10. It was an Amazon’s Black Friday-like sales event called Amazon Prime Day. One item that caught my eye was Amazon’s Echo.

Echo” is a smart speaker with a microphone and “Alexa” is Amazon’s voice command system that resides within Echo. Amazon is not the only company offering a smart command system. There is also Google Now and the latest Google Assistant, and Microsoft’s Cortana. These personal voice command assistants have downloadable “skills” which allow you to verbally tell them to do certain things, such as obtain weather reports, create to-do list, play your favourite songs, make phone calls, and write and send text messages, order take-away food from Deliveroo or UberEat or even shop online.

The ease, speed and convenience of these voice command assistants is that you no longer have to speak into your phone, as Apple’s Siri requires.  Essentially, when the voice command assistant hears its wake-up word (a word users set to prompt Alexa to action), the voice command system responds to your voice command/s as long as you are within earshot of the speaker’s microphone. It is always on ready standby for your next command.

However, as with all things, there are limitations with these voice command systems. For example, you can only give one command at a time to the voice command assistant and may get mixed-up if you use more than one device or if you set the same wake up word for each device it could then get confusing for both the system and the user. These voice command assistants may also have unforeseen or unintended consequences for the user.

For example, if like to eat corn chips or are an early riser then Alexa will know this because it helped created your grocery list and it helped to set your alarm to wake you up each morning. Thus, Alexa collects data from its users, sends this information to the cloud and presumably captures and uses the information for marketing purposes. You might think to yourself that this data collection is not a big deal but what is the big deal?

The big deal is that Alexa, in this case, is owned by Amazon – one of the largest online shopping sites in the world. Think about it. Once awaken, Alexa hears (and saves) everything unless you push the mute button or delete the information from the voice command assistant. You might soon start to notice that you are now getting suggestions from Amazon as different brands of corn chips available at Amazon’s website or other suggestions for books on the early bird getting the worm.

These voice command systems offer the consumer an innovative way to communicate with their environment and this may be the wave of the future, but at what cost will this come?

Here are six things to think about:

  1. What are the ramifications if Alexa being “on” and it overhears a conversation you are having with your house guest? There is an interesting case in the United States where police demanded that Amazon turn over information from a murder suspect’s Echo. You need to think of the possible ramifications of personal privacy once these voice command assistants are turned on and installed in cars or home appliances.
  2. What are the limitations placed on companies when collecting, using or disclosing consumers’ personal information? How much control will you be willing to forego over the use of your personal information?
  3. Do these companies re-sell, barter, or disclose the information to other companies or governments, and under what circumstances?
  4. Do consumers actually read a company’s privacy policy? Generally, most people simply “accept” the privacy policy without much thought.
  5. Should consumers be paid for the information they provide via these voice command systems or is the opportunity to use a company’s services enough compensation for you? Information is a valuable commodity after all and personal information collected about you may be invasive.
  6. Are the privacy concerns regarding the collection of personal information by these companies over blown? After all, there are ways to mute the voice command or delete the information from the system, right? Do you know if this is really possible?

Finally, you’ve probably heard a version of the “nothing to hide argument” which often gets cited in discussions around privacy and surveillance. It goes something like this: “I am not worried about being surveilled by X because I have nothing to hide.

Edward Snowden, the American ex-NSA intelligence employee, who copied and leaked classified information about global surveillance programs once said, “Arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.

So, what are you willing to give up for the ease, speed and convenience of using these voice command systems? Perhaps you need to think about it a bit more before you let devices collect personal information about you?

Fatimah Moran, Senior Lecturer at Staffordshire Business School

Click here for information on the courses available at Staffordshire Business School

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One thought on “Is a voice command system safe (or private) enough for you?

  1. I have exactly the same questions. Internet of things give the chance for providers of these services to connect everything with everything. Information makes you predictable and vulnerable to influencing.

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