Privacy

What Does Always “On” Mean to Your Privacy?

Digital assistants can compromise privacy

Have you ever used a digital assistant such as Alexa? They are always connected to the internet and they are always listening. What happens if these devices go rogue? Is having one equivalent to voluntarily bugging your home? Read on.

In a recent case, a woman in Portland, Oregon said that her Amazon Echo device recorded a conversation and then shared it with one of her husband’s employees in Seattle. Amazon says it knows what happened: As the woman talked with her husband, the device mistakenly heard a series of requests and commands to send the recording as a voice message to the employee.

“Echo ‘woke up’ due to a word in background conversation sounding like ‘Alexa,’” Amazon said in a statement. “Then, the subsequent conversation was heard as a ‘send message’ request. At which point, Alexa said out loud ‘To whom?’ At which point, the background conversation was interpreted as a name in the customer’s contact list. Alexa then asked out loud, ‘[contact name], right?’ Alexa then interpreted background conversation as ‘right’. As unlikely as this string of events may seem, we (Amazon) are evaluating options to make this case even less likely.”

This is NOT the first time these devices have been reported to seemingly act in random ways. Amazon’s devices are equipped with seven microphones and noise-canceling technology. Amazon and Google are the leading sellers of such devices. Amazon offered a similar explanation in March after several users reported hearing Alexa laugh at random. The assistant, the company said, had “in rare circumstances” mistakenly heard “Alexa, laugh.” As a result, Amazon changed the phrase for that command to “Alexa, can you laugh?” and had the device verbally acknowledge such requests.

Researchers at UC Berkeley, said in a published paper that they had proven that the technology could be exploited. They were able to hide commands in recordings of music or spoken text that went unnoticed by humans but were understood by personal assistants such as Apple’s Siri, Google’s Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa.

Are you rethinking your use of these devices in your home yet? Well – keep on reading…

Children have ordered items through the devices without parental consent, and last year, Burger King took advantage of the devices by incorporating a command into a commercial. The commercial went something like this: “You’re watching a 15-second Burger King ad, which is unfortunately not enough time to explain all the fresh ingredients in the Whopper sandwich,” the actor in the commercial said. “But I got an idea. O.K. Google, what is the Whopper burger?” Prompted by the phrase “O.K. Google,” the Google Home devices sitting in many homes searched the phrase on Wikipedia and stated to recite the ingredients – sending a very aggressive subliminal message that you want a whopper and you want it now.

Many hotel chains are thinking of incorporating smart devices like this into the hotel room, so together with the big data repositories that know all about your personal preferences, the room can be set up to your liking, you can ask the virtual concierge to perform tasks for you, and don’t forget they can then collect more data on you in the process.

Although these devices certainly add convenience, critics, and I am one of them, have argued that the always-on devices pose a threat to privacy and security.

So what do you think? Do you want Alexa listening in on your healthcare discussions or adding personal preferences to your travel profile based on stray comments during business and personal travel? What else might these recordings be used for and how many privacy laws might be broken?

Let us know what you think.

If you would like to discuss privacy with one of our experts, please contact Vaporstream today

Contributor: Galina Datskovsky