In 2013, Google added a voice recognition system which can be activated by speaking some keywords. Then we got Google’s Nest/Home In 2014, Apple made Siri work the same way and it’s speaker called as Apple’s Homepod then Amazon launched a much simpler system. Amazon Echo, a voice-activated smart speaker whose main purpose was to interact with a voice.
These are nice to have with us but they collect a lot of data about us by its design. They listen to our commands, record them and those recordings may be stored and accessed by the company itself. They can be used to make very sophisticated profiles of us i.e the users as they have tons of ways to use user’s data but, we don’t certainly know what they are. This doesn’t mean that they are not good and not useful. They are, but we have to take care of the privacy options before using these.
More popular than ever
This changed the world. As per statistics, almost 50% of searches are done with the help of voice assistant smart speakers mostly made by Amazon, Google, Apple and others made by third-party companies that incorporate Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant. Companies put these speakers on heavy discounts on holidays and special occasions and make them very affordable. And Furthermore Covid-19 pandemic served as a boost for the sales as users made a gradual change to these items for entertainment purposes than other priorities.
Smart home devices make our lives easier in different ways. Mostly it can play desired songs, answer our questions, give a brief idea of the weather, control smart lights and fans and many more which are just received from our verbal commands. It’s great for everyone like older people who might have mobility issues or for tech-savvy people who have always wanted to control things through their voices.
Even though these are quite affordable for most of us, it becomes costly when we need to get other smart devices like bulbs, fans, plugs, cameras etc which bumps up the overall cost.
But there’s another cost — Privacy
We might not be comfortable if someone asks us to give all our data to one of the largest tech companies in the world- the biggest personal data collectors in our homes. And we have the right to be concerned about what the devices are listening, recording and storing.
Researches have shown that most smart speaker’s owners are not aware that these devices are storing their recordings or that they might be reviewed by personnel of the companies.
How and Why?
Firstly, Yes, all smart speakers listen to us in order to work. This system is not that complicated as most humans think. Essentially it’s just a microphone that connects to the internet. It records our query, sends that recording to the company’s server, which analyzes and finds the answer that happens instantaneously.
Even though we forget the question we asked, the company seems to remember it. The developer teams of the companies constantly work in order to refine and improve the algorithms for the smooth functioning of these voice-recognition systems. Under some circumstances, it might not understand our questions and hence the companies hire people to check such questions and analyze why the algorithm wasn’t able to answer it and hence refine it more.
So yeah, that means there is someone who might listen to your certain requests. The chances of us getting recognised just by our voice are extremely small. But there have also been some situations when the recordings are turned over to law- enforcement for investigation purposes.
Amazon, Google, Apple, all provide an option not to have their recordings saved and reviewed by the companies, thanks to public pressure. We can delete all the recordings we have. Some of them also have options to disable microphones when not in use for a short period of time.
The Privacy concern is real
Google says it ‘may use’ the interactions with Google Assistant to target ads. But we can go to privacy settings and disable Ad personalization to prevent this and hence we can trust the company as they respect our choice. On the other hand, Amazon, it has never opened upon such questions. So, it might be having our data to use in the future which we might not be even aware of. An example of this is Amazon’s Sidewalk, a free odd feature. What it does is that it creates a shared network that helps multiple Amazon Echo devices, Ring Cameras, Lights and motion sensors work better at home and can support other devices to work efficiently in the community. It uses Bluetooth and radio frequencies to connect all the devices with each other in the community and convert it into a Smart neighbourhood.
But Amazon hasn’t told us much about the service other than its functioning and a privacy statement that even though our neighbour’s devices are connected they won’t be able to access any of our information. Another problem is that Amazon’s echo users get added to Sidewalk automatically unless and until they disable this option in the privacy settings. Amazon never bothered to answer as to why users get added to this feature beforehand.
This huge popularity of having a Smart Home containing smart speakers shows that we have entered into a new course of technology which is built by companies whose one of the main goals is to learn everything they can about us. But, what they may do with the information is still an Enigma for the world.