Sacrificing privacy for hands-free technology

by Gabriella Pinos/ Staff Writer

If there’s anything my dad loves about technology, it’s how many things in the house he can control from his phone.

Feeling a bit chilly? My dad can just unlock his phone, check on his Ecobee app and change the temperature on the thermostat from the living room. Hear a strange noise outside? He can see what’s going on from an app on his phone that’s connected to security cameras. Want to listen to music while cooking up a meal? He connects the Bluetooth speaker near the coffee maker to his phone through an app, opens Pandora and plays music remotely.

If my dad had it his way, everything, from our refrigerator to our car, would be connected to the internet. And with the integration of virtual assistants on our devices, we don’t even need to turn on the lights or thermostat. All we need to do is wake our trusty AI sidekicks up and tell them to do our dirty work.

But despite his love for emerging technology, one thing’s for sure: you’ll never catch my dad talking to Alexa.

While virtual assistant technology has been around for a while, the integration of voice recognition software has changed American lifestyle in just a few years. Alexa, the most popular virtual assistant today, was pitched to Amazon via the Amazon Echo in 2011, and since then, over 100 million devices featuring our favorite AI butler have been sold, according to The Verge.

It took the public less than a decade to get used to robot assistants who recognize our voice and respond to our requests. Powering our lives through speakers and smartphones is a commodity we would have never imagined in the world of early computers; even the idea of it sounds like something out of a science fiction film.

We’re living in an age where ordering pizza and buying groceries on command have become the standard for millions of households. But for some, like my dad, this also means sacrificing comfort for privacy.

Rumors surrounding Alexa listening and recording your conversations have been thrown around since its launch, but it was only until recently that they became true. In May 2018, an Amazon Echo device recorded a private conversation between a family in Portland after it misheard what they were saying for its “wake word.” Alexa’s recording process was activated, and the conversation was accidentally sent to one of the family’s contacts.

In USA Today columnist Jefferson Graham’s case, Alexa awoke when it heard him discussing the Portland story with his wife and recorded a snippet of the conversation. Alexa also listened in on Graham’s podcast, in which he discussed a survey where he asked 150 questions to Google, Siri and Alexa. The device proceeded to tell him that Alexa had “more useful” responses compared to the other two.

While Amazon assures that Alexa only starts recording when its wake word is used, the public fears that this may not be the case. It’s a reasonable worry too, considering the deceptive tactics tech companies have gotten away with in the past few years.

It’s a fear that’s enough to keep my dad away from Alexa, who would rather communicate with Siri on his iPhone. However, that’s not to say that companies like Apple and Microsoft, which have their own virtual assistants in their devices, aren’t doing the same.

Like Alexa, Siri records its user’s conversations when prompted; however, it also keeps personal data encrypted. Apple calls it Differential Privacy, which scrambles the user’s data and combines it with data from other users, which prevents Apple from tracing information back to a specific person.

But if we look at the bigger picture, everything we do, from turning on location services to asking Alexa about the weather, poses a threat to our privacy. The average citizen needs these tools to survive in this connected world, and without them, we’ll be as outdated as the computers and fax machines that preceded our devices.

My dad knows this, and he’s more than willing to stay as connected as possible to make his life easier. But at the same time, worrying about Alexa monitoring and recording his conversations is where he draws the line. For him, and many others, staying out of Alexa’s way assures that his information stays within the four walls of his house.

Whether that’s a fair price to pay for hands-free self-gratification is up to the user.


The opinions presented within this page do not represent the views of Panther Press Editorial Board. These views are separate from editorials and reflect individual perspectives of contributing writers and/or members of the University community.

Photo by Status Quack on Unsplash

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