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.

Future of recruiting: using artificial intelligence (AI) to select the ideal employee

by Florentina Herr


Technology innovation shapes the lifestyle of human beings in the modern world. It enables us to communicate faster and more efficiently. The same is especially true for communication in the workplace and thus technology plays an essential role in the process of finding potential candidates and the ideal employee for a new position. Each year big corporations such as Unilever spend a huge amount of time and money on this process, which has seen no brilliant improvement since decades: prepare a Curriculum Vitae, a cover letter, send as a attachment in an email and wait for a response. The new way to deal with this issue is the usage of AI to select the Ideal Employee. What are the next steps? Will face-to-face job interviews be completely eliminated by AI one day?

State of Affairs

As Statista presents in a statistic asking 297 heads of HR in Germany, if they use a applicant-management software, around 60% answered with yes. The second question asking these heads of HR who answered with “yes“, for which purposes they use these softwares, more insights were given. Almost everyone of them (99%) use applicant-management softwares for administration of applicants data and documentation. 83% of heads of HR in Germany use it to automatically answer applications. Only half of the respondents answered that they use it to establish talent pools. 36% said to use it to trigger onboarding processes. Almost similar in percentage, respondents answered to usage for definition of fitting job profiles and 24% of respondents also use it for a first applicant check on the basis of keywords.

Currently, digital service providers such as Pymetrics, HireVue or new start-ups like Talentcube are revolutionizing the management of HR. In Germany, a new start-up named Talentcube offers an APP for applicants to apply with a videoclip in which they have to answer three questions that are provided by the firms in advance. Companies such as IBM and Allianz are already using it and reducing its costs with this idea. This signals the first step in transforming the traditional HRM into a digital or virtual HRM.

The next step, as Business Insider reveals: Pymetrics provides neuroscience-based games to access each candidate. It tests the ability to focus, memory, risk averseness as well as the ability to real emotional and contextual cues. The results are then evaluated by AI and provided for the HR manager. For him an enormous pool of every candidate is reduced to a small pool of people with “higher potential“ for the position.

Another high-tech company is HireVue, professionally for video interviewing. As the homepage of HireVue claims, they are able to accomplish higher quality hires, access and interview in one step and thus offer more efficient hiring. Known brands that use HireVue are e.g. Vodafone, Nike, Intel, Tiffany & Co., Honeywell, Qantas, Carnival Cruise Line, and 40% of Fortune’s Most Admired.

Main Issues

Accessing people with AI seems to be first of all cost reducing from the view of the companies, as it helps the HR manager to avoid reading applications without a chance or to interview people where there interviewer knew in the first few minutes that this candidate will surely not be offered a job, but out of politeness cannot rudely let them leave the room immediately. Also, it may help to find more job-fitting applicants, as the chance to get a better candidate increases, when more people can be access in a shorter amount of time. Another argument sure is that biases of the interviewer are reduced, as there is basically no personal contact in the process.

Still, there are issues that need to be discussed. What Pymetrics is measuring with the neuroscience-based games may refer to logical thinking, risk awareness etc. But according to an article about 10 facts about jobs in the future, Lee Rainie presents that the nature of jobs is changing as the knowledge of the economy rises. Occupations requiring higher levels of social skills may affect 83% of employment, which outnumbers the percentage of analytical or physical skills. So in order to evaluate applicants of the future correctly, AI should be capable of understanding and evaluating social skills. This is a challenge for AI. Plus, to measure social skills under real-life circumstances, AI may need to observe applicants in a group. So the advantage to use AI to minimize effort may vanish.

And even though workers express more positive than negative views on overall impact of technology on their careers, people express more worries than optimism about future automation in this conducted research. The strongest expressed anxiety, covering 72% of respondents, is that there will be a future where robots and computers can do many human jobs. Directly after that comes the worry of 67% of respondents that there will be development of algorithms that can evaluate and hire job candidates. Only 22% of respondents are enthusiastic about this, less that expressed enthusiasm about robots and computers doing human jobs. This may demonstrates the negative feeling people have with being interviewed and hired by AI.

Also, the interview may be missing a “personal touch“. The first day of a new job, you come to the office and know nobody. You may feel like a machine, that has been chosen by a “thing”. But in this case, at least, you have been given this job.

But imagine you just found an advertisement of your dream job. It requires you to log-in to a company-internal website where you are asked to type it all your personal information but also to take realtime videos of yourself, with perhaps one chance to record. These are evaluated by AI and it is the AI that decides if you may be offered a position or are out of the game. Two days later, you get the result: „Sorry, unfortunately we cannot offer you the position.“. How do you feel? Do you perceive the evaluation process as fair? Can you accept the result or would you rather have wanted a real person to evaluate you by a face-to-face interview? Those issues concern the perception of fairness and the ability to accept decisions that are made by non-humans. Is our society so far, that we feel like we are on eye level with machines that sort humans into categories? Many more issues can be discussed: how can you tell that neuroscience-based games really reflect my future behavior in the company, my ability to work in groups or my overall performance as a future leader?