Why the Privacy Controversy Over Voice Assistants Misses the Point

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Why the Privacy Controversy Over Voice Assistants Misses the Point

The press, hungry to drum up concern about big tech and privacy, has seized upon voice assistants as a clear and pressing danger to consumer privacy.

· IoT Zone ·
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With Sonos recently purchasing “Snips”, a privacy-focused voice assistant, and backlash around programmable voice play from Optus, the concern around voice privacy is still ever-present. The press, hungry to drum up concern about big tech and privacy, has seized upon voice assistants as a clear and pressing danger to consumer privacy.

You may also like: 7 Key Predictions for the Future of Voice Assistants and AI in 2020

Instances of accidental invocations of voice assistants — perhaps the 2019 equivalent of the infamous “butt dial” — aren’t helping. Nor are recent admissions from Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and Apple, which have all revealed that small samples of voice recordings have been analyzed by internal teams and independent contractors.

However, mainstream discussions about privacy in voice today are overblown, lacking context and missing the bigger picture. Here’s why:

Privacy Is an Illusion

In today’s digital age, true privacy is an illusion. That’s because nearly every form of digital communication leaves a trace — even when deleted — which gets tracked, sold, and used to target us.

We’ve all heard the cautionary phrase “once it’s on the internet, it’s there forever.” This is the nature of how the web was built and how it has evolved — and we as consumers have almost unanimously embraced the free service-for-data tradeoff thus far.

To engage in modern society today is to forfeit some amount of our privacy — it’s simply a matter of degree.

There’s a Huge Difference Between “Hearing” and “Listening”

Smart assistants are always listening for their wake word, but that doesn’t mean they’re transcribing everything they hear. They wipe their memory continuously, every few seconds unless their wake word is detected. Amazon Echo devices are limited from a hardware perspective and incapable of prolonged eavesdropping.

Despite some consumer doubts, tech companies are taking intentional measures to safeguard against these sorts of privacy invasions. Any audio that doesn’t wake the device is technically heard by a microphone, but not documented in any enduring way.

They Need Data to Become Smarter (So They Can Better Serve You)

Smart assistants need to hear more to improve their automatic speech recognition (ASR), and their natural language understanding (NLU) capabilities. That means feeding them large data sets of utterances (what people say) for even a single intent (what people mean) to train to grasp the subtleties between different voices and variations in contextual meaning.

Powerful as machine learning may be, AI can’t do this by itself. Machine learning can only take these systems so far—most experts in voice technology believe that training AI is a process that must be aided by humans in some way. What’s more, consumers can now opt-out of human-reviewed recordings on Alexa.

They’re the Only Devices That Don’t Have Ads…and Come With a Mute Button!

Have you ever unlocked your phone, opened your Instagram app, scrolled through some pretty pictures of food and friends until *bam* you’re hit with an ad for a product you were just talking about?! Ever notice how that doesn’t happen on smart speakers? Well, for one thing, they don’t serve ads (yet).

And, unlike all other smart devices, smart speakers come with a clearly labeled, impossible-to-miss mute button, which cannot be easily tampered with remotely. So you can be confident when their mics are hot and when they’re not, with just the touch of a button.

You Still Can Marie Kondo Your Alexa

Deleting your smart speaker search history is possible and not that different from deleting your web browser history. It seems everyone has grown accustomed to the fact that the embarrassing Facebook photos we’ve now deleted still live on somewhere in the deep, dark ethers of the internet.

Instead of the deep corners of the World Wide Web, voice search queries and commands live on Amazon, Google, and Apple cloud networks—which it’s safe to assume are pretty difficult to hack into, and which we trust daily with every other aspect of our digital lives.

Everyone Else Is Doing It

Quite frankly, everything else is already listening. Take finance: credit cards, bank accounts, and Venmo all track digital data on our spending habits, but how many people do you know who exclusively carry cash to avoid being tracked?

People seem to be more concerned with smart speakers because of their placement in intimate spaces - living rooms, bedrooms, bathrooms - without realizing that these are all the places they carry their phones (and other devices) regularly.

Consumers should care about privacy and technology and should be informed about how their data is collected and managed. Just because we’ve given up a degree of our privacy doesn’t mean we can’t get some of it back in the future, and tech companies can be more transparent around how they collect and use voice-related data.

Further Reading

Alexa, Google Assistant, Siri: Voice as Future of Content Delivery

Why Voice Tech Is the Next Big Thing for Media Giants

4 Strategies for Integrating Voice in Your Business

voice technology ,privacy ,technology adoption ,technology blog ,technology innovations ,ai artificial intelligence ,ai ,iot

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