Tag Archives: Alexa

If Alexa goes rogue: Is your data safe with voice assistants?

Voice assistants are all the rage, but they’ve got no sense of personal space. Amazon Echo’s Alexa, Google Home, Microsoft’s Cortana, and Apple’s Siri all offer similar experiences, though they look a little different—and apply different rules to your data. It’s one of the major reasons office adoption has been slow, despite what potential this tech could have for businesses.

Though some assistants are not yet available in Canada, these voice-controlled technologies have landed on many office tech wish lists, and an estimated 8.2 million customers have purchased the Echo (and its personal assistant, Alexa) in the United States alone.

But let’s be real, there’s no question that they’re popular and people want them. When it comes to newer home appliances, we want to know how much we can trust them. When a speaker sits idly waiting for your command, what else is it listening to?

Murder, she recorded

Both Google and Amazon will go to great lengths to explain they’re only listening for their “hot words”—the phrase that activates them, like “Okay, Google”—before the microphone begins listening, but is that really the truth?

That’s new ground to break, legally, but law enforcement is already testing it out. In late 2016, the police used Amazon Echo for a murder trial by capturing data from conversations in the background. Police didn’t specify what was recovered from the Echo, but it was reportedly used to play music on the night of the murder and could have captured data outside of when it was used, as well.

Amazon’s Echo device doesn’t actually store data, but it is stored in Amazon’s cloud for an indeterminate amount of time, which means law enforcement could use a warrant to seize that information. The biggest problem with hot words is that the microphones in these devices are on at all times to ensure they’re ready to respond to your command. Supposedly, your device won’t stream any data to the cloud for processing until you say it, but when you do, it grabs a few seconds before and a few seconds after, too.

Don’t say “I do” to digital personal assistants just yet

Both Amazon and Google use security technology to ensure hackers can’t access the data, and it’s sent to data centres in encrypted form. But there’s one big risk, even if you’re not the suspect in a criminal case: someone hacking into your cloud account.

Amazon and Google log all the queries you make and let you access the audio files. You need to manually delete them later, which means they’re fair game if your account is compromised. That data is also used for marketing purposes and to learn what people use their devices for the most.

Amazon, for example, knows that more than 250,000 people have asked Alexa to marry them. Are you part of that stat? Siri, however, focuses on privacy: It doesn’t log your identity with your requests. Instead, it uses a string of numbers to track who said what. This way, Apple doesn’t know who you are, and it’s automatically deleted after six months.

The rise of smart devices—like printers, voice assistants, light bulbs, and other IoT products—is exciting, and all these devices are fun to use. It does prompt bigger questions about privacy that haven’t been answered yet, though: How does the average consumer know what’s tracked, and is it possible to protect yourself against accidental data leakage?

With all new tech, especially those entering the office, you’re making a trade-off. Consider how useful the technology is to your office, and how much data your employees and coworkers will give up to actually use it? Much of the time—with smart devices, like connected printers, digital personal assistants, and IoT appliances—it’s worth it, especially when these devices make their way into the business world or an office setting. If these personal assistants are this smart now, imagine how our data will be captured in the coming years.

Smart grocery stores are here—but are they more smartphone or smartwatch?

First there were smartphones. Now there are smartwatches, smart homes, and even smart grocery stores. Smart technology keeps evolving, but it hasn’t always done so in a straight line. While the evolution of smart technology has meant that some devices (like smartphones) have become ubiquitous, others (like smart fridges) have failed to catch on.

From Amazon to Apple

In December, Amazon opened Amazon Go, a smart grocery store where there are no lines and no cash registers, according to Forbes. Customers scan their phones when they enter the store, take products off the shelves like they normally would, and when they’re done shopping they simply walk out the door. No more scanning required. Amazon says the store uses computer vision and sensors combined with artificial intelligence to figure out what people are taking and bill them accordingly. It’s a sign that the evolution of smart technology is moving beyond individual devices and into physical spaces.

Amazon isn’t alone when it comes to using smart technology in the physical world. Some professional sports teams have started adding location-based features to their apps, allowing them to, say, send a message to every app user who’s at a game. Some brick-and-mortar retailers are experimenting with technology that will allow them to communicate with customers based on what aisle of the store the customers are standing in, giving them access to product reviews and sending them deals based on what’s right in front of them.

Smart technology has already had some pretty big false starts. The Apple Watch remained a niche item, especially considering it’s an Apple product. It suffered from lacklustre sales and a generally indifferent consumer market. The rest of the smartwatch industry has seen pretty similar results—popularity with a small subset of fans but little mass-market interest. Is it because people already gave up their wristwatches for smartphones and don’t want to go back? Or because smartwatches are essentially a peripheral purchase? Given the fact that the Apple Watch didn’t get a Dick Tracy-style video-communicator app until November 2016, it’s possible consumers just didn’t see what problems the technology was supposed to solve.

Heading into the home (and garage)

That’s what happened to the first generation of smart-home technology. It turned out that people weren’t interested in buying an internet-connected fridge just for the sake of a having an internet-connected fridge. But the current wave of smart-home technology is a different story. People understand the appeal of a lighting and heating system that can be automated or controlled remotely. And as the cost of these systems continues to decline, they’ll continue to become more attractive to consumers.

The smart-home market is also getting more interest from tech giants. Apple, Google, and Amazon are all pushing smart-home solutions, says Forbes. For all three companies, AI assistants will be a key part of this strategy. After all, using a voice command to turn up the heat on a winter day is pretty cool. If these companies are successful, it will revolutionize the way users interact with their smart homes. While Google and Apple have phone-based AI assistants that their customers carry around with them, Amazon has positioned the Echo as a stand-alone device, albeit one that can control other devices.

The other big smart technology on the horizon is the smart car. For companies like Uber, this could be a game changer, but in general, autonomous cars may be a difficult market to crack for smart technology. Some people will want to continue driving, while others will be worried about losing their jobs. Most other smart-technology setbacks have been the result of consumer indifference, but the smart car could see real pushback.

It’s hard to say where the evolution of smart technology is heading, but it seems safe to say that a lot more devices—and places—will be getting a little dose of intelligence sometime soon.