Privacy VS Convenience in a Digital World
Recently, my boyfriend and I had a conversation about smart speakers. It was initiated by a friend’s Google Home acting up, reacting as though it heard the activation phrase “OK Google” when we were talking about something completely unrelated. As a result, my boyfriend informed me that he did not want corporate listening devices in the house.
It’s a little late for that, considering the fact that we live with someone who owns a Google Home, but the irony may have been lost on him.
Still, there go my hopes and dreams of buying an Alexa. Not that I have any solid plans to ever actually buy one, but if you have spent any amount of time reading this blog, you know that I’m fairly enthusiastic about smart speakers like Alexa. I just think they’re neat!
If my enthusiasm for smart speakers didn’t come across in my writing, this video will surely convince you.
But my boyfriend did bring up a fairly good argument against them; the fact is, Amazon and Google really are collecting your data. But according to both Amazon and Google, the only information they’re actually collecting are your commands and searches. Your smart speaker may always be listening, but they don’t start sending any data back until you say the appropriate wake word.
Still, having something in your house that could be listening in on all your conversations and collecting data could feel a little sketchy. Even if our corporate overlords insist that the data is only being used to enhance voice recognition capabilities and maximize the way devices interact with each other, we don’t actually have a guarantee that this is true. In the wake of Facebook’s little oopsie, it’s harder to trust that these large corporations have our best interest in mind.
Luckily, if you really don’t feel comfortable with Amazon or Google to having your voice commands, it’s easy enough to go in and periodically erase all the collected data. You can even get your smart speaker to set up a reminder so that you don’t forget. Personally, I am not really all that worried about Amazon or Google monitoring my usage of Alexa; they already have a basic profile of my shopping and search habits through my browser history. What’s a bit more worrisome, in my opinion, is that according to WikiLeaks, the NSA might be hacking your smart devices as well.
This chart from Statista.com shows that while many people do have privacy concerns, it’s not the primary reason they don’t own one.
Despite my enthusiasm for smart speakers, I don’t really use the Google Home. It’s tucked away behind the TV, so I often forget it’s there. The aforementioned boyfriend, however, so concerned about corporate spies invading our home, uses it fairly frequently, asking it to set up a timer or a reminder at least once a week. I think if we had an Echo Spot, the latest Amazon smart speaker with a screen, I’d be more inclined to use it, if only because it would be placed somewhere I can see it.
Not to mention, Amazon is working on a new project called Vesta, which could be a new, mobile iteration of Alexa, or an expansion of the Echo smart speaker line, or some new, exciting robot pet. Right now, there’s not a lot of information available, and the primary reason it’s even speculated to be a robot is because Amazon’s Lab126 has been hiring roboticists like crazy. And let’s be real, if they really do come out with a mobile Alexa, I would be pretty hard-pressed to turn it down. Having a personal robot to fuss and coo over is basically the dream.
They’re going to have to work quick, however. Misty Robotics is well on its way towards launching a home robot of their own, the aptly named Misty, and they’re planning on releasing it by this December. And while Misty does have voice commands, remote viewing, and face detection capabilities, it doesn’t appear that it sends that data anywhere but to your own personal computer. Maybe Misty can’t give you a sassy comeback when you ask about the average flying speed of an unladen swallow, but boy, it looks like there sure is a lot it can do.
Look at this cute little bot. I have only just met it, and I love it already.
So, is the convenience of having a robotic personal assistant in your home worth the intrusion to your privacy?
For me, it is. The data being recorded by Amazon and Google is largely the same as what they’re getting from my browser history, so I don’t feel like I’m being intruded on all that much. For other people, the looming possibility of the NSA or even just black hat hackers spying on them is enough to dissuade them from getting a smart speaker.