Many of us have voice assistants in our homes, living in our speakers, phones, and many other ‘smart’ devices. Having personal staff used to be a luxury, but now, thanks to big tech companies, our devices can act as a secretary, butler, and entertainer rolled into one. Voice assistants are a free perk that come with your smart devices, used by over 132 million Americans users.
If you feel suspicion or doubt towards your voice assistant, you are not alone. Many users feel creeped out that they are always listening, and uncomfortable by the amount of information they collect. Your privacy concerns are completely justified. In this article we’ll break down the technology behind artificial intelligence and voice assistants to offer insights on how this helpful, yet mysterious technology works.
Always on, always listening
Although the functions behind voice assistants differ by brands and devices, they all work by passively listening to you. Companies claim to only start recording once the assistant has been activated. However, according to North Eastern University, smart speakers accidentally activate up to 19 times a day, recording up to 43 seconds at a time. Most of us keep our smart speakers in private spaces like our bedrooms, so it's likely that your speaker has captured private moments without you even noticing.
The “thinking” process
You may be wondering the reason companies record you, where this information goes, and how it is used. Essentially, your voice recordings and interactions with your smart assistants produce important pieces of information that feed the artificial intelligence (AI), behind the technology. This process is called machine learning. Your smart speaker or smartphone itself is not what contains the “brain” of the AI; that is all processed and kept on the company’s servers. Your device is merely an input-output machine, sending your command to the servers, and relaying it’s answer to you.
To simplify things, imagine that by interacting with your voice assistant, you are teaching the AI two essential skills.
- Its ability to recognize and understand your voice, and
Its ability to execute the appropriate response.
Every time you converse with it, it gets a little smarter in order to serve you better. This is designed to be helpful, but unfortunately companies have ulterior motives in using your data, which has been documented to be handled without care.
Want to learn more about your online privacy? Read our article 7 shocking facts that will change the way you view online privacy
1. User profiling and targeted advertisement
Voice assistants are a powerful tool in collecting information about their users. They are able to create a profile of you based on your interactions, and the third-party apps that are connected to them. While this creates a more tailored experience, many companies use the information collected by voice assistants as data for targeted advertising. Whether they sell you more of their own products or sell you more from brands that use their platforms for marketing, they are profiting off of you.
2. Human employee review
Some companies that sell voice assistant products have human employees or contractors review your voice recordings. Essentially, the employees act as tutors that guide the process of machine learning. They listen to voice recordings received by their servers and offer the AI insight into their interactions with you. This may seem harmless if they were only recording when you ask for the weather, but we know these devices often get accidentally activated, and as a result, unintendedly record your private moments.
3. Data breaches
Since their birth, there have been multiple reports of data breaches and errors within the cybersecurity of voice assistants, causing fear in users that these voice recordings would end up in the wrong hands.
We're here to help
You should not have to choose between loving your voice assistant and protecting your privacy. Right now, it is up to you to protect your privacy and security by getting educated and taking action. Start today by completing our checklist of 7 easy ways you can improve your online privacy. Click on the link below to access our best tips.