Experts Warn Of Privacy Concerns Around Digital Assistants
By Brian Taff,
May 7, 2018, ABC TV-6, PHILADELPHIA, PA
Do you own an Amazon Echo or Google Home? If so, you're far from alone -- millions of Americans have bought the devices in recent years. But how many consider what they do, how they really work, or how much they know about you?
Experts say everyone who owns one should be aware that they DO record your commands and questions, storing those queries on company servers.
What comes of that data is of some concern to privacy advocates.
Consumer Watchdog, a non-profit advocacy group, recently reviewed patent applications submitted by the manufacturers of these smart assistants.
According to Consumer Watchdog, "the patents revealed that Google and Amazon are willing to have their devices active, even when people in their homes think they're off."
And that could be just the start. So, a reason for concern? Perhaps not yet. Reason for awareness? Absolutely.
"They're always listening, so they're ready for that prompt," said Drexel University Professor Rob D'Ovidio
The devices are built to react when you say a certain key word, Alexa, for instance., is always listening to instantly record the question or command you say next.
"It's recording that, sending it, processing it and then returning the results," said D'Ovidio. "But that recording remains on their servers."
Need proof? Grab your phone. In the Alexa app click "settings," then "history," and there you'll hear every question you've ever asked your device.
"They're providing you with the ability to go and delete those recordings, but the consumer needs to know first and foremost that that's there," D'Ovidio said.
Your voice gives tech companies a glimpse into your preferences, your calendar, and a literal ear into how you live your life when you think no one is listening.
For the moment, experts say, companies like Amazon and Google are not doing much with the data, but it is likely that will change.
"The assumption that we have an expectation of privacy is going to be a bad assumption," said D'Ovidio.
In fact, the non-profit advocacy group Consumer Watchdog recently reviewed patents of the smart assistants, revealing, it says, a desire by the tech companies to make the devices always active, meaning always listening, even if you don't say the keyword.
According to the group, Amazon has patented an algorithm to listen for so-called statements of interest, like "I love skiing."
The algorithm would then transmit the statement to Amazon as text, allowing them to process the information but technically keep its promise to store only audio data.
So is this all cause for worry?
"I don't want to demonize these technologies. There's certainly a good use and hopefully they are moving toward making our lives easier," said D'Ovidio
But is it cause for awareness?
"To understand exactly when information is going to be recorded and what's going to be saved," D'Ovidio said.
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