Virtual assistants – wolves in sheep's clothing?

Mikko Torstila

by Mikko Torstila

Digital assistants are everywhere. As a dedicated geek, I have pretty much all of them in one shape or form in my house and in my pocket as well. Personally, I haven’t paid too much attention to the privacy concerns and these things have blended into our daily lives as little helpers that adjust temperature and flick lights on and off at our command. And yes, they do answer occasional questions and sometimes activate without prompting.

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Just the other night while watching the latest (but not so great) episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones, my wife and I started discussing the age of some of actors in the show. I pulled out my phone and started Googling Emilia Clark and got as far as “Emi”, and there she was — the first search suggestion, Ms. Clark. Coincidence? Or is my Google home speaker or the Google Assistant on my phone eavesdropping our conversations? By the way, she’s 32.

Privacy in the age of always-on virtual assistants

Privacy concerns have been growing as these devices have become increasingly popular. The big three behind the most popular assistants  Google with their Assistant; Apple with HomePod and Siri and Amazon with Alexa  all offer consumers a way to check the logged voice prompts. This is something that wasn’t there from the get-go but has been added to calm some of our concerns. Generally, that’s fine, and good enough for me. I’m thinking that if the “big three” have enough resources to continuously monitor what’s going on in my house beyond the logged prompts, so be it. The discussions in my household are not that interesting and most conversations are in Finnish (equal to Navajo in its marginality and could be used as a code language), which is out of the language palette of these devices. 

Out of curiosity, I wanted to see what is going on “behind the curtains” and beyond logged voice prompts. For this I used a network snoop and checked the network traffic in and out of the boxes. To my surprise, the traffic is mighty active, and the amount of data transferred is huge. What's more is that it's continuous, without user-initiated voice commands. By no means this is proof that there is more going on than what the “big three” is telling us, but it is a strong indication that these boxes “phone home” more often than we think. 

My advice - speaker beware

These virtual assistants are fun and even useful to some. In the English-speaking world, the everyday chatter (which may or may not be recorded without you knowing it, and what may or may not be sent back to the “big three” for further scrutiny), might only be as interesting as my household discussion point of “what’s for dinner?”. My advice to you is this: unplug when discussing your next IPO and keep these things out of your boardrooms. Keep them plugged in when planning your next holiday, you may get some unexpected offers that just happen to suit your needs perfectly.

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