New technology is almost always exciting, but it’s never without its drawbacks, and those tend to come with a bevy of public concerns. When social media was first becoming popular, privacy and security were major topics of discussion—and fears over user privacy still haven’t completely faded. Now, technology is becoming even more closely integrated with our lives, and a new set of privacy concerns is on the horizon.
Smart Homes and Home Assistants
“Smart home” technology seeks to unify everything within your home, from your refrigerator and thermostat to your television and tablets, connecting them to the internet and with each other. On one device, for example, you could adjust your home’s temperature and lights, preheat the oven, and find a movie to stream, without ever leaving your seat. Now, “home assistant” technologies are emerging to allow you these kinds of commands through voice inputs, as well as allowing you to purchase products and stream music online.
Amazon’s Echo was one of the first of such products to enter the market, but now Google is cooking up its own version, Google Home. Though the full details on Google Home haven’t been released, the two devices are similar in that they’ll be controlling a sizable portion of your home life, and one of their biggest selling points is the fact that they’re “always listening,” which to many users, is more discomforting than impressive.
Privacy Concerns on Users’ Minds
Personal information is just that—personal. Even government authorities only have access to certain types of personal information, according to Monder Law. With these home assistants geared specifically toward gathering commands and “listening” to your vocal commands, it’s only natural to have questions about what information it can gather, what information it can send to its tech company creators, and what they can do with that information once they have it.
- Deciphering human speech. Echo and Google Home are both adept at deciphering human speech. These devices are even capable of hearing low-level or garbled vocal commands, and translating them into actual actions. Anyone who’s used a personal digital assistant in the past year or so knows how advanced voice recognition has become, so the question is—what kinds of conversations will these devices be allowed to hear? Amazon’s Echo only “listens” after hearing a wake word—usually “Alexa”—which triggers a light to come on to signal its awareness. But users have a right to be curious about whether it’s possible for the device to hear natural conversations they might be having in the privacy of their own homes—and whether that information could be stored somehow.
- Order history. Things like order history and search history storage aren’t new—in fact, for most of us, these are tools of convenience. You can check up on your past actions, and companies can make suggestions based on your past preferences. But once it gets to a home environment, how far will this history go, and what will companies be able to suggest? For example, if you start ordering a specific product every week, would these devices be able to use that information to suggest a similar or complementary product? On some level, this is useful, but there’s a potential line it could cross when it comes to breaching the user privacy barrier.
- User behavior. Order history isn’t the only type of observation a home assistant could make. For example, these devices will be hypothetically capable of tracking your temperature preferences, what you’re cooking for dinner, and what you like to watch, all in one location. This data is somewhat innocuous, but at the same time, it could paint a detailed portrait of who you are as a human being—and that’s valuable information.
- Advertising. Thus far, most of the detailed user information that’s been gathered by tech companies like Facebook and Google has been exploited for the sake of advertising. So what happens when home assistants gather even more specific, more intimate personal information? Will we start seeing advertising that appears even “creepier” than retargeting ads that follow us throughout the web? Will these home assistants produce their own kinds of advertisements in our home environments? There’s no question that the advertising industry will tie into the home assistant revolution; it’s just a matter of how, and how much information they’ll be able to use while participating.
Fortunately, tech companies are actively recognizing these privacy concerns and taking proactive measures to ease them. Amazon, for example, is detailed and (presumably) transparent about the privacy standards it maintains with the Echo device. It’s also important to remember that we already have devices capable of “listening” to us at any time, and ads custom-served, based on our behavior. Home assistants aren’t introducing new privacy concerns, per say, they’re just bringing old ones into a new environment.
That doesn’t mean they aren’t significant or that they aren’t worth thinking about, but it’s important to recognize the full scope of privacy in the digital age.