Since the introduction of digital voice assistants like Alexa and Google Home, people have been curious, and nervous, about how much they actually hear and what it is they plan to do with that information.
With increased attention currently being paid to user privacy since the Cambridge Analytica scandal, a light is also being shined on Amazon and Alphabet, along with their helpful devices.
Is Alexa listening in to your conversations? Is she harvesting information about you for later?
A Visit to the Patent Office
A quick browse of patents filed by both Alphabet and Amazon reveals sinister sounding things like “voice sniffer algorithms” and audio monitoring to help collect data and detect things like moods and health status. Are these the harbingers of doom? Jamie Court, president of nonprofit advocacy group Consumer Watchdog, says absolutely.
“When you read parts of the applications, it’s really clear that this is spyware and a surveillance system meant to serve you up to advertisers,” Court told the New York Times in a recent interview. He add that these companies were “basically going to be finding out what our home life is like in qualitative ways.”
Taking Privacy Seriously
Alphabet and Amazon, naturally, are fighting back against such allegations.
Tech companies do regularly file patents that they never use, just in case they can implement that idea in a later creation. It’s a common practice, whether they’re developing software for an audio system like Alexa or Google Home, or other tech.
Amazon responded to the vitriol from Court’s group in a statement saying that “a number of forward-looking patent applications that explore the full possibilities of new technology” were filed, but they “take multiple years to receive and do not necessarily reflect current developments to products and services.” In other words, these are just ideas, not a New World Order.
Both devices allow users to see and hear the audio that’s been recorded, as well as delete it forever. Both also have a light that becomes active when they’re recording. Although the activation is still not perfect, the technology is young and users have as much control over their data and privacy as anyone.
For now, at least, Alexa and Google Home seem to be neutral, if not on the side of good. After all, if they can order a pizza and allow you to control your smart devices without getting off the couch, they can’t be all bad.