Maybe you received one for Christmas. Maybe you’ve seen the commercial or the comical video of the boy whose requests were misunderstood by the device. One thing’s for sure, these latest voice-controlled smart appliances are quite impressive. They can play music, control lights, and answer questions with nothing but your voice. In fact, they can even be told to order groceries or a pizza. (Quite possibly, a busy mom’s dream.)
But, are these little helpers too good to be true? That depends on your views about privacy. Here’s what we know about devices such as Amazon Echo and Google Home (as published at www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/science/sd-me-echo-home-20170105-story.html):
- They both work in a similar manner. They constantly listen for a trigger phrase. Once activated, they record a voice query and upload it to the cloud for an appropriate response to return.
- Each boasts a roster of unique features to entice shoppers. The $130 Google Home can sync with any device that supports Google Cast, like Android smartphones and Chromecasts. The $180 Echo relies on Bluetooth, which makes it more compatible with smart home devices and wearables.
- Differences aside, both share one major downside: privacy. Both Alexa and the Google Voice Assistant are constantly listening to everyone within microphone range for input by default. That core function broaches a series of privacy concerns.
- The microphones are always listening unless physically muted.
- The voice assistants cannot differentiate between different people.
- The devices upload recordings and store them on cloud servers.
- Data collected from recordings and subsequent analyses is used to provide a customized experience and, in all likelihood, targeted advertising.
- The device's location is used to give more accurate searches and, again, targeted advertisements.
- Data may be shared with third parties and this may be unknown to the user.
- All of the data passed between an Echo or Home and its corresponding servers is encrypted, so security is not so much an issue. A hacker won't be able to decipher any intercepted communication.
The larger concern is privacy, rather than security. Voice assistants are subject to unforeseen vulnerabilities. Using them means trust in the Amazon, Google and any third-party developers that create the integrated apps and companies that could potentially gather your data. It also means that you must trust your family members and visitors who could also access your device. Ultimately, voice assistants are not private. They rely on the cloud to access applications and analyze recordings, a job that is too complex to do on the device itself. That’s why you purchase the hardware (Amazon Echo, Google Home, or any other personal assistant) and sacrifice the privacy of your usage to pay for the service. In turn, developers can use your information for marketing and data to serve advertisements and promote products. Unless a subscription model is introduced at a later time, it’s an all or nothing deal. If you aren’t willing to sacrifice your privacy, a personal assistant may not be the best choice. If you don’t mind, it can be a very convenient device.