Hi Alexa, are you invading my privacy?

More than 3.2 billion digital voice assistants are in use worldwide. Should we be amused, or terrified?

A person holding black Amazon Echo Dot. Photo: Jan Kolar

One day in 2017, Peter Johnson, who lives in London, came home from work as usual. As if it knew he was home, his Amazon Echo Dot voice assistant blurt out some arbitrary messages, supposedly based on his previous conversation with the device. It repeatedly suggested him to book train tickets for journeys he had already completed and to record TV programmes that he had already viewed. Peter had not even said the word “Alexa” to wake it, but it went bizarre for a very long while.

In addition to this bizarre episode, what’s more interesting is that Peter was a former Amazon employee. He recalled volunteering to sit in a room, reading out loud a series of random meaningless words into a microphone for an unrevealed purpose. Only when the Echo was released by Amazon in 2014 did he realise what he was doing the whole time. In 2016, he purchased a Dot which is a cheaper and a smaller version of Echo. He found it useful and amusing, at least until it gone bizarre. After the incident, he eventually got rid of the only voice assistant he owned: “I felt a bit foolish,” he says. “Having worked at Amazon, and having seen how they used people’s data, I knew I couldn’t trust them.”

Alexa by the desk top. Photo: James McDonald

Some people may perceive this as a strange coincidence, but this is not the only weird case. Danielle, in Portland, Oregon, has discovered that her Echo had been recording a private conversation between her and her husband. Not only that, the Echo then sent the recorded conversation to one of her husband’s employees without their permission. Like Peter, she had not said the wake word – “Alexa” – to activate the device. “I felt invaded,” she insisted. “Immediately, I said: ‘I’m never plugging that device in again because I can’t trust it’.”

But a lot of other people do plug the device in newly each year. David Limp, who is Amazon’s senior vice-president of devices, announced that the company has sold more than 100 million Alexa-enabled devices. The total number of digital voice assistants in use worldwide is around 3.2 billion in 2019, and it is anticipated to increase to around 8 billion by 2023, according to Statista. As such, voice recognition technology is widespread across the whole world, and it is not an exaggeration to say that it is The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, as Shoshana Zuboff calls.

The surveillance by voice assistants are strangely polarizing. Technology frequently leads us to a dilemma, whether or not we should use these threatening, yet convenient services. For Facebook and Google, despite the fact that they know too much about us, we maintain using them because they are way too valuable and irreplaceable. With voice assistants this is different. Like Danielle and Peter, people lean toward one side or the other – amused or terrified. So the question is: Should we let voice assistants into our home?

AmazonGoogle and Apple have admitted that they hire people to listen to anonymized audio clips that are recorded via their voice assistants. A number of voice recordings are passed to the third-party for ‘quality control measures’, a spokespeople for “Big Three” tech companies say. But a number of experiments have shown that these recordings are used for commercial purposes as well: a YouTuber named Michollow live tested if Google and Facebook listen in and record conversations even when the applications are not open. In this experiment, Michollow makes sure every browser is closed. Then he talks about dog toys, a topic that he has never searched for in the past. He does this for two minutes. When he goes back to the same browser, dog toys advertisements popped up right away proving to him: voice assistants are invading our privacy.

Michollow live testing if Google listen in conversations. Source: Michollow YouTube

How do people feel about this issue? Nicolos Angulo, a MA Law student at King’s College London as well as a Siri user says: “It is kind of creepy that our smartphones are listening to us. When you accept all the terms and conditions, you are simply agreeing to give them access to everything including the voice recognition. It is not great nor comfortable, but because it is the only way to use the smartphone, I think I just have to accept it.” Although he acknowledges that voice assistant is a massive threat to our privacy, he feels forced by the fact that it is the only way to use many services.

At the moment, we are tolerating the boundless surveillance in return for extremely bounded service. AI technologies have enormous potential for development. The more sophisticated the service will become, the more invaded our privacy will be. In order to head off the Orwellian nightmare, we need to well consider what we should value more.

Until that night, Peter had no idea what Alexa was up to. Now he knows, it is the most bizarre technology that has the potential to do anything. Nothing is more dangerous than being ignorant. Who knows? Big Brother might be watching us already.