GP The Panel 4: Voice Assistants

Alexa... are you listening to me?

2019-02-19 23:36:16
This piece first appeared in the Guernsey Press on 19th February, 2019.

Q: I’ve got an Alexa-enabled device. Is it safe to use?

The popularity of voice-activated devices like the Amazon Echo (Alexa), Apple Siri and the Google Home Assistant - aka personal voice assistants - has risen meteorically in the last couple of years. This was prompted mostly by the novelty factor of having a semi-transient being to get quick answers from (‘Alexa, what time is it?’) and the convenience for use especially in smart home automation (‘Alexa, turn on the lights and set the TV to BBC1’). The relatively low price-points have made them more affordable than ever - but what is the real price? The cost of the device is not where the companies are making money - the bigger prize is the value in the data so that they can market (i.e., shopping suggestions or adverts) to you more effectively.  

Therefore ‘safe to use’ has many different contexts - which means there are many ways in which devices like these can be considered safe or not; but in simplest terms, there are two key questions to answer.

Firstly, how would you feel if your data escaped from the company? Would you be OK with recordings of your conversations being in the public domain? You would usually be forgiven for assuming that the biggest providers are more resilient to data breaches - because it’s actually mostly true - but even Amazon recently had a very embarrassing data breach to do with data captured on Echo devices. Large data breaches are not uncommon and in reality, there is little you can do to about them, other than exercising good personal security practices. 

Secondly, and more importantly, are you comfortable with devices that are always listening to you? This is effectively your own 'personal information safety’ and is really a personal decision based on various factors, such as how you feel about the company behind it and what they’re likely to do with the data. Some people are OK with it; some aren’t. Mostly, people don’t think about it. 

Whilst the GDPR should provide certain protection to consumers around fair usage, if you feel your conversations are sensitive (think Ashley Madison hack) or you place a higher value on the data that these companies are collecting about you, then it might be time for ‘Alexa, please switch off.'