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Are They Always Listening? Smart Assistants Like Alexa Under Fire Over Privacy Concerns

By ABC EYEWITNESS NEWS, CHICAGO, IL

May 1, 2018

http://abc7chicago.com/technology/are-they-always-listening-smart-assis…

Tens of millions have made it into our homes over the past few years, providing users the experience of convenience and connectivity. But as these smart assistants gain in popularity, advocacy groups are raising red flags, citing concerns over privacy.

Chris Bronk, assistant professor of computer and information systems at University of Houston, says these devices technically never stop listening.

"The device always has to be listening for the trigger word, and that's what gets the privacy community really concerned," said Bronk.

The nonprofit advocacy group Consumer Watchdog recently published a study that looked into the patents of these smart assistants.

Consumer Watchdog president Jamie Court said, "The patents revealed that Google and Amazon are willing to have their devices active, even when people in their homes think they're off."

He says this is something all users should be aware of.

"They bring on early adopters. They get as many as they can, and once you're used to a device, suddenly with the software update, with a change in a privacy policy, things change overnight," Court explained.

Consumer Watchdog is also worried this technology could listen to your children in order to market to them.

"And what the patent application showed is the companies are collecting information on your children, what they read, what's on their bedside. Theoretically, because then they can market them certain types of products and services," Court said.

Another reason for concern is third-party data-sharing.

"We have a security need on one side, and a convenience desire on the other. And we have to find a middle ground between the two that works for consumers and works for the companies that are dispensing the technology," said Bronk.

At the end of the day, these are companies that want to sell advertising or products and want the best possible model for consumers who are ready to buy right now.

So, if you're concerned about them listening too much, Consumer Watchdog says to turn them off when not in use.

Read Consumer Watchdog's full study on these devices here.

Google's Statement Regarding Consumer Watchdog's Report:

Consumer Watchdog's claims are unfounded. We file patent applications on a variety of ideas that our employees come up with. Some of those ideas later mature into real products or services, some don't. Prospective product announcements should not necessarily be inferred from our patent applications.

All devices that come with the Google Assistant, including Google Home, are designed with user privacy in mind. For Google Home, we only store voice queries after a physical trigger or after recognizing a hot word trigger like "OK Google" or "Hey Google". In addition, activity history is stored similarly to other web activity, and users are in control of their information and can edit permissions, view or delete voice queries in My Activity. Lastly, Google Home devices only come with one button, the mic mute switch. This gives full control of when the Assistant on Google Home is helping.

 

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