Voice assistants have become an increasingly popular household item, with the likes of Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, and Google Assistant topping the list. These voice assistants can do everything from playing your favorite song to setting a reminder or scheduling an appointment. However, with the convenience they bring, they come with a cost: sharing your personal information, sensitive data, and compromising your privacy. This article will explore the privacy risks associated with voice assistants while discussing ways to balance the convenience they offer with data privacy.
What Are Voice Assistants?
Voice assistants are virtual assistants that use voice recognition technology to understand and respond to a user’s commands. They can respond to various prompts, answer questions, and execute requests. Some of the most common voice assistants include Amazon’s Alexa, Google Assistant, Apple’s Siri, and Microsoft’s Cortana.
Voice assistants are designed to be user-friendly, make life more convenient, and respond to a wide range of tasks. You can ask a voice assistant to play music, set a timer, order groceries, or even turn off your lights. However, behind the seemingly simple process, voice assistants are collecting your data and personal information, which can pose privacy risks.
These voice assistant devices typically come in different shapes and sizes: you can either purchase a smart speaker (a standalone device), a connected home device, or a smartphone. As such, almost everyone with a smartphone can use voice assistants like Siri or Google Assistant. You can activate them by pressing a button, saying “Hey Siri” or “Okay, Google,” respectively.
What Data Do Voice Assistants Collect?
Voice assistants collect a considerable amount of data from users. Every interaction with your voice assistant, including your voice, is recorded and stored in the cloud. Some data that voice assistants collect includes:
- Your voice commands and requests
- Your location data
- Your device information
- Your search history
- Your device activity
For instance, if you ask an assistant for restaurant recommendations, the voice assistant might want to know your location to suggest nearby eating joints. Over time, as you continue using the voice assistant, it can accumulate even more data, including your buying preferences, your daily routines, and more.
The problem with this vast data collection is that it holds sensitive information that can be misused or fall into the wrong hands once it leaves your device. Hackers can gain access to your data, and although tech companies claim that voice data is stored securely, it is not entirely foolproof, and the risks associated with a database breach might be costly.
So, how can you balance the convenience offered by voice assistants with data privacy? Here are some suggestions:
How to Balance Convenience and Data Privacy
Limiting Data Collection
The first step in balancing convenience and data privacy is limiting the amount of data your voice assistant collects. It is not possible to eliminate data collection entirely since voice assistants need data to function. However, you can limit the data that gets collected. For example, you can turn off feature settings that collect your location data or search history, when within the settings section of the voice assistant.
Also, turn off Amazon’s human review option if you don’t want a stranger listening in on your requests and conversations. Apple also introduced a feature in 2019 where users can delete all Siri voice recordings.
Use Impersonalized Commands
Another way to balance convenience and data privacy is by using impersonal commands that do not reveal sensitive personal information. If possible, voice your commands carefully, avoid asking for personal information like account numbers, or passwords.
For example, instead of saying; “Hey Alexa, what’s my bank balance?” it is better to say “Hey Alexa, what’s the time?”
Keep Your Voice Assistant Up-To-Date
Keeping your voice assistant up-to-date is another way to improve privacy. Tech companies regularly release updates to improve the voice assistant’s functionality and security. Users should also use the latest version of the app installed on their devices to ensure that they access the most recent security features.
Turn Off Voice Assistant When Not In Use
One of the simplest ways of balancing convenience with security is to turn off voice assistant when not in use. By detracting the voice assistant from recording data or commands issued, you limit some privacy risk.
If you are particularly concerned about data privacy, it is possible to hardwire privacy into your everyday use of voice assistants. One of the strategies is by using a dummy email account specifically for the voice assistant. Avoid using your primary email address to avoid sharing sensitive personal information and information about your daily routines.
This approach offers you more control over the type of data shared through that particular email address. You can decide to provide required information that the assistant needs like the user’s preferences while deliberately leaving out any personal identifiable information from your purchasing and browsing information.
Examples of Voice Assistant Privacy Risks
Although voice assistant technology has been praised for their convenience and efficiency, privacy risks are ever present. We will take a look at some of the most notable examples of data privacy risks associated with voice assistants.
Amazon Alexa Incident
A few years ago, Amazon’s home assistant device Alexa made the headlines for all the wrong reasons. A user bought a second-hand Echo Dot, only to discover that the device still had access to the previous owner’s personal data, including their Amazon account details.
The individual who sold the device had failed to log out of the Echo Dot, and the new owner was able to access all the previous owner’s information, including their credit card details.
The incident highlighted the importance of de-registering and deregistering devices before reselling them to prevent sensitive data from falling into the wrong hands.
Kaspersky Labs Experiment
Kaspersky Labs embarked on an experiment that sought to test the security of smart home devices. The experiment involved hacking into Amazon Echo devices and exploiting the vulnerabilities of Alexa skills to gain full access to the device.
The experiment showed that it is possible to hack into devices, thereby exposing user information to hackers and malware. The risk increased with the rise in the number of apps that connect to voice assistants.
Users should be aware of the risks posed by third-party apps that connect to their voice assistants. Some third-party apps collect personal data like location and browsing history, putting user privacy at risk.
Google Home and Nest Recording Scandal
Google was embroiled in a voice assistant privacy scandal in 2019 when it was revealed that the company was recording conversations that took place even when users hadn’t given Google Assistant any commands. The company said it was for quality control purposes.
Privacy concerns arose when a user’s private conversation was caught in the recording. The user had not instructed Google Assistant to record the conversation, but it recorded randomly and without their knowledge.
Google responded by updating its settings to allow users to delete recordings and to avoid future recording incidents.
The Future of Voice Assistants and Privacy
The voice assistant market is not showing signs of slowing down as more people embrace smart devices. However, as much as the technology is making our lives more convenient, it doesn’t seem like privacy risks associated with voice assistants are going anywhere anytime soon.
As we continue to use more voice assistants, there is an increasing need to adopt best practices that balance the convenience of these devices with the security and privacy of our data.
New features such as voice implants also pose new risks risk, as future voice assistants will undoubtedly make use of even more complex but potentially intrusive technologies relating to user identification features like age and gender.
Voice assistants are becoming an integral part of everyday life. However, data privacy risks are becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. As highlighted in this article, hackers can access the sensitive personal information held by voice assistants, causing significant damage.
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