Tech Talk: How Well Is Your Voice Assistant Guarding Your Secrets?

There is no doubt the ‘Voice Assistant’ devices such as Amazon’s Echo, Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, and Google Home, are here to stay, and more, like Samsung, will be joining the party. But just how well do they keep your many ‘secrets’ or personal information? It is a strange fact, but true, that we are much more willing to speak openly to an electronic ‘ear’ than we would to a real individual. It follows the same line as texting, where we may text things to a person that we would find very difficult to say in a face-to-face meeting. We can ask Google Home the answers to intimate questions and receive a reply, but did you ever wonder what happens to that question after you ask it? Can someone ever retrieve a list of questions posed by you to find out just how your mind thinks in determining what kind of person you really are?

While this Artifical Intelligence (AI) is still in its infancy stage, one has to wonder how this will affect us in the future as this Artificial Intelligence (AI) grows more mature and more capable. Just how much information our digital assistants amass was brought to light by a murder investigation in Arkansas. The suspect had an Amazon Echo in the room, and the police asked Amazon for a recording of what went on in the room of the suspect, but Amazon explained that no audio is transmitted without first saying its trigger word, such as “Alexa” followed by a command.

It seems that Amazon’s Echo and Google Home work about the same way. Before the recording starts, you must first say the device's ‘trigger’ word, ask your question, and then it stops recording after your answer is given. You can visually see it recording because the lights will be on as an indicator. Optionally, you can have Echo beep when it recognizes its name and again when it stops recording. The is also an old fashioned on/off switch for the microphone if you are really paranoid. Amazon, like all companies, keeps the recordings to improve their services and voice recognition, but you always have the option via your Alexa app to permanently delete any recordings. Google will also keep the recordings unless you tell them you want them removed at my.activity.google.com.

Apple’s Siri also produces no recordings unless you trigger it and ask a direct question, but Siri assigns a random number associated with your request, keeping your name entirely out of the process. Apple only keeps the question for two years for testing and then deletes the recordings, or if you turn Siri off, all identities and recordings are deleted. Microsoft’s Cortana will answer many web related answers, setting alarms, etc., without ever associating your name to the task – there is no reason to do so. If Cortana needs to access personal information, it will ask you if it is okay. You can also use the settings to turn off any personal information you might have shared, and the option is always available to delete the recording from their server.

People are just now buying into the idea of products for their home – or as they are termed, The Internet of Things (IoT). The ability to control the power to turn lights on/off, adjust your home’s heating/AC, turn your TV or music on/off and raise the volume, answer the door, or to ask questions and receive answers to just too enticing to pass up. Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai explains, “This is a core area we’ve invested in for the long-term” and Google is “thinking about it across phones, homes, TVs, [and] cars.” The added exposure to this AI opens up, even more, doors to what we might deem as an invasion of our future privacy.

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About the Author
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Cory McNutt

Senior Staff Writer
Cory has written for Androidheadlines since 2013 and is a Senior Writer for the site. Cory has a background in Accounting and Finance and worked for the FBI in the past. From there he pursued his Masters in English Literature. Cory loves Android and Google related technology and specializes in Smartphone Comparisons on our site. Contact him at [email protected]
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