Omniscient Alexa?

Jake Stenquist, Abigail Gurgiolo, Cameron Chertavian

 

You walk into your kitchen after a long day at work, grab a cold beer, and sit down to tell your significant other how much you hate your boss. Recorded. In another situation, you argue with your child about their report card that came back full of C’s. Recorded.

One may guess that these conversations were taped from microphones discreetly hidden in the corners of a room, and the government decided to bug your house. The true source, however, is sitting in plain sight on your kitchen counter.  Plugged into the wall, standing at roughly nine inches tall, the device waits for the owner to say her name and then give any number of simple commands. This is the new Christmas hot-seller, Echo by Amazon, or as others simply call it, Alexa. It could also be any number of in-home mechanical assistants dominating the tech market today, from Google’s new Google Home to the phone-based personal assistant Cortana.

From ordering products on the internet, to reporting the weather and traffic for the day, to telling you the date and time of the Super Bowl, devices like Alexa are omniscient. Only a trigger word prompts a response, but the nature of the device makes you wonder: is it every truly off?

Many know the famous quote uttered from Uncle Ben of Spider-Man: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Mechanical personal assistants have been given the great power of hearing every conversation spoken in the houses of their owners, but have companies like Amazon and Google handled the responsibilities that come along with this new treasure trove of audio and metadata correctly? Should homeowners completely trust this device?

In this blog post, we are going to discuss the pros and cons of in-home mechanical assistants, and help weigh in on the trade-off between the convenient personal assistants provide with the potential pitfalls it can bring along with it.

Pros:

The advantages of owning an in-home mechanical assistant (which in the spirit of one device will from hereon be referred to as Alexa) are initially very simple, but have much expansive benefits as the devices are developed more, and allowed more access to everyday conversation.

On a basic level, Alexa can perform tasks such as playing music, checking the news or weather, or recording a grocery list. Recently, a new feature has been created that fact checks politicians for the user,[1] showing how Alexa can be used for more meaningful purposes then turning on music. This also showcases another unique aspect of these devices: all of them are created with open-source material that allows outside developers to create applets usable by the device. Amazon’s and Google’s unique decision to let in outside developers means that Alexa’s potential is not limited by paid developers themselves, hopefully allowing for a wide breadth of creative purposes.

Similarly to a Fitbit, Alexa can be used to collect metadata that can be vital to the understanding of one’s own life. Currently, there are only limited ways to understand metadata produced from Alexa. Google is a pioneer in this field, allowing the viewing of queries and data collected by visiting the website’s My Activity page.[1] If a user were to tabulate this data, or (more effectively) the companies themselves prevented this data to the user in an accessible manner, the user could gain important insight into everything from their purchasing habits, when they turn on various devices, and even when they like to listen to certain kind of music.

It should also be noted that Alexa can be used in more serious situations. For example, these devices are beginning to enter nursing homes and assisted living situations. On a basic level they would be used to do tasks the user cannot, but the devices have also been co-opted to detect if the user is safe and healthy, using high-frequency ultrasound waves in a manner similar to echolocation.[2] In these cases, Alexa can not only help out the user, but possibly detect if the user is sick or having a medical emergency, and alert the correct personnel.

 

Cons:

Some people would argue that if you don’t want your interactions with Alexa recorded, then you simply shouldn’t buy or use the bot. Seemingly, by purchasing and using the technology, you’re agreeing to the terms and conditions – which include the recording and uploading of the questions you ask Alexa. However, recently it’s come to light that not only are the things you ask and the responses it gives recorded, but also bits of conversations before or after you interact with the device are as well.[3]

This issue is not specific to Alexa, but applies to all home assistant devices. It’s a valid argument that companies have a right to know how their products are being utilized, in order to improve their quality, but it is often difficult for consumers to determine exactly how much of their data is being gathered and analyzed. Consumers are becoming wary about losing privacy in their own homes if they choose to use these types of devices, and recent criminal cases have done nothing to reassure them.[4]

While companies who sell these items claim that they are “designed with privacy and security as part of the design,” privacy settings aren’t automatic – owners have to manually mute their devices to prevent them from recording when not in use.[5] Similarly, it is difficult to delete the data once it has been uploaded to the cloud. Consumers can erase individual entries online, a time-consuming process especially for frequent users who generate a large number of entries quickly.

[1] Moynihan, Tim. “Alexa and Google Home Record What You Say. But What Happens to That Data?” Wired. Conde Nast, 05 Dec. 2016. Web. 01 Mar. 2017

[2] Metz, Rachel. “Home Assistants like Amazon Echo Could Be a Boon for Assisted Living.” MIT Technology Review. MIT Technology Review, 28 Feb. 2017. Web. 01 Mar. 2017.

[3] Bischoff, Paul. “NewsFactor Network.” NewsFactor Network RSS. N.p., 9 Jan. 2017. Web. 01 Mar. 2017.

[4] Buhr, Sarah. “An Amazon Echo May Be the Key to Solving a Murder case.” TechCrunch. TechCrunch, 27 Dec. 2016. Web. 01 Mar. 2017.

[5] Baral, Susmita. “Amazon Echo Privacy: Is Alexa Listening to Everything You Say?” Mic. Mic Network Inc., 20 Dec. 2016. Web. 01 Mar. 2017.

[1] Fingas, Jon. “Amazon Echo Now Fact-checks Politicians.” Engadget. N.p., 23 Oct. 2016. Web. 01 Mar. 2017

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