Personal Assistants and Privacy: A Never-Ending Tug-of-War between Efficiency and Data Protection?

Amazon echo dot is one of the famous Personal Assistants | Photo by Andres Urena on Unsplash. Amazon echo dot is one of the famous Personal Assistants | Photo by Andres Urena on Unsplash.
<center>Amazon echo dot is one of the famous Personal Assistants | Photo by Andres Urena on Unsplash.</center>

In the digital age, information has emerged as the new global currency – new sectors from business analytics to data science rely on personal data to improve performance and drive innovation.

In this context, privacy has quickly become a top priority for consumers, as they wish to know and choose what personal data they are sharing with companies. Against this setting, some recent technological developments, such as the rise of personal assistants like Amazon’s Alexa, raise concerns due to the way that they handle privacy issues. As customers are searching for a sense of security when it comes to their personal data, are tech giants doing enough to protect them?

Is Amazon Alexa Eavesdropping?


Amazon famously started out as an online retailer – and has managed to transform the field by changing the rules of the game – but it has also branched out in several other sectors, including cutting-edge tech. The company has always embraced innovation, implementing novel concepts in online retail. As research reported by Betway Casino mentions, Amazon employs roughly 100,000 in its warehouses around the world, while it has also recently started providing deliveries by drones. According to Statista, Amazon’s net sales revenue grew exponentially within a decade, as it went from 14.84 billion in 2007 to 177.87 billion in 2017 and reached a staggering 232.89 billion in 2018 alone. The online retailer has consistently won over consumers by its focus on improving its services, as well as extending its suite of products. But it seems that Amazon has not quite managed to convince everyone that it is up to scratch when it comes to privacy.

Image Credit: Betway.

Infographic: Americans Do Not Trust Facebook with Personal Info | Statista

Privacy is a big concern lately, especially in the wake of scandals like the Cambridge Analytica business that tarnished the reputation of popular social media platform Facebook. A recent public opinion poll revealed that a whopping 60% of Americans do not trust Facebook with their personal details – far more than the 35% who stated that they do not trust the Federal Government. Another 37% of those surveyed revealed they did not trust Google, while Amazon fared slightly better at 28%. Yet this percentage is still high – and it might have something to do with concerns over the company’s personal assistant, Alexa, and its use of data recorder on the Echo device. As a recent article on Bloomberg explains, it seems that Alexa devices routinely collect and store a large volume of recordings captured on them, leaving owners worried about their privacy. The recordings are then transcribed and analyzed by employees that are tasked with improving the personal assistant. The ultimate goal is to feed valuable information back to the software to help Alexa better understand how humans speak and how to respond to commands more efficiently.

Cutting-Edge Tech Vs. Privacy

Even though Amazon discloses the fact that they may use user requests to Alexa in order to train its speech recognition system, it does not explicitly recognize the crucial role that human employees play in that process. In other words, Alexa owners are not really expecting that other people might be “listening in” when they talk to their device. This manual work is an essential part of helping Alexa learn, since tasks such as annotation of voice commands can only be reliably performed by humans – at least until Alexa gets even better. While these recordings are not directly linked to a client’s full details, such as name or address, they are associated with their first name, their account number, and the device’s serial number – which for many users is already too much. As all personal assistants undergo rigorous speech recognition training, it is hardly a stretch to presume that similar issues could be linked to some of Alexa’s other popular counterparts, such as Google Assistant.

Image by HeikoAL from Pixabay.

In fact, personal assistants have in the past come under scrutiny due to the fact that they could be tricked by hackers using malicious voice commands. For what is worth, Apple has vehemently protested any attempt to conflate its privacy policy with the approach adopted by Silicon Valley giants. As the company has recently explained, its business model is focused on minimizing collection of user’s data and anonymizing any such information collected to enhance privacy. When it comes to its own personal assistant, Siri, Apple emphasized that it is not constantly listening in.

Instead, developers use an array of short buffers that are locally stored and intended to only wake up Siri when it is highly probable that the phrase “Hey, Siri” has been uttered. They also stated that when Siri does record commands, then recordings sent to Apple are only linked to an anonymous identification number. While Apple seems to place a lot of weight on privacy concerns, the debate is much wider. Similar worries have also been expressed over other cutting-edge tech, such as face recognition software.

As privacy advocates and consumers continue to express worries over how big companies use information they collect from users, it seems that they there is only one way going forward – technological developments must be tied to increased data protection and demonstrate transparency over how they use our data, if developers are to win their clients’ trust.