Commentary

The Walls Have Ears

The walls have ears -- and in this case, it's the intelligent personal assistant in your smartphone or home hub device.

Google Hub and Amazon Echo and other intelligent personal assistants such as Google Assistant, Apple Siri, and Microsoft Cortana continually listen to private conversation waiting for the "wake word," which triggers the device to wake up and search and retrieve answers to the voice query.

Bentonville, Arkansas police want to know what was said prior to and after a death that occurred in the home of James Bates in November 2015, and are seeking the transcripts of the audio recordings within a 48-hour period of the victim's death to determine whether it was accidental or a murder.

The actual voice search queries are not the topic of this privacy debate, but rather the continual chatter that occurs between search queries. Intelligent personal assistants are always listening. They must identify "wake words," such as "computer."

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"Amazon argues that not only is the privacy of Amazon Echo users at stake, so is the privacy of Alexa's responses," reports Arstechnica. But while Amazon claims the conversations are private, does the company use what Alexa hears as triggers to target advertisements through Echo or online?

Bentonville police issued a warrant surrounding the death of the former Georgia police officer Victor Collins, found dead in a hot tub at the Bentonville home of Bates, who claimed the death was an accidental drowning. Arkansas police believe Bates died after a struggle and suspect the Amazon Echo found streaming music near the hot tub may help solve the case.

In Amazon's case, when the user wakes the device with a specific word, Echo connects to the Alexa Voice Service and transmits the request. A study done by Stone Temple Consulting found that more than 70% of people like to use their personal assistant such as Siri, Google Assistant or Cortana because it is much faster when searching for information -- but if devices linked to the technology are always listening, what happens to the words just prior or following the search?

Does Amazon record and store random words in its cloud services platform? Some experts have said these personal assistants retrieve, capture and store the 60 seconds just prior to the search request.

Indeed, it is frightening to think software and algorithms wrapped in a mechanical device connected to the Internet via WiFi continually listen to your conversations and hang on your every word, even if you have nothing to hide.

1 comment about "The Walls Have Ears".
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  1. Mark Traphagen from StoneTemple Consulting, February 26, 2017 at 9:50 p.m.

    Thanks for mentioning our Stone Temple study of how people use voice assistants. Your readers can find it at https://www.stonetemple.com/mobile-voice-usage-trends/

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