Why Privacy is the Smart Speaker Trade-Off

It is safe to say that the smart speaker revolution has taken hold in the U.S. An estimated one quarter of all U.S. households have a smart speaker, with Google Home and Amazon Alexa being the two most popular. Smart speakers are like digital assistants on steroids. They can retrieve all sorts of information and act as hubs for smart home systems.

As wonderful as smart speakers are, no technology is without its trade-offs. The big trade-off with the smart speaker is privacy. Now that we are all spending most of our time at home to protect ourselves from coronavirus, privacy suddenly takes on a whole new meaning.

Always Listening

A smart speaker relies on voice recognition technology to understand what you say and to then respond accordingly. This presents a few issues right off the bat. First of all, a smart speaker has to constantly listen for an activation command. That means such devices are always listening – night in day.

Google and Amazon claim that activation commands prevent their devices from inadvertently recording conversations. Yet a recent study demonstrates that the devices do just that. How often? Up to 20 times per day, per device.

The other issue here is that audio is recorded and sent to cloud storage for later analysis. Smart speaker makers claim that data is analyzed only for the purposes of improving their devices. But let’s be honest, how realistic is that? Just ask yourself how it is that companies like Amazon and Google make money.

Improving Their Marketing Efforts

Both Google and Amazon make money by selling. Google sells ads while Amazon sells both ads and products. Both companies stand to sell more if they can improve their marketing efforts. We already know they do so – even without the use of smart speakers.

Google’s Chrome browser follows you around the internet. So does their Android operating system. All of the collected data is used to understand who you are as a person. It is analyzed and added to your profile so that companies can better market to you. Amazon does the same thing through its search engine and advertisements.

Is there any reason to believe the two companies don’t do the same thing with their smart speakers? No. The software in those speakers includes a search function. That search function works the same on a smart speaker as it does in a browser. All of the information it collects gets analyzed and added to your profile.

Creating a World for You

Have you ever noticed an ad pop-up on your phone within minutes of you having a conversation at the kitchen table? It could be that your smart speaker was paying attention. If not, maybe it was your phone. The point is that data mining companies like Amazon and Google are trying to create a unique world for you. They want to serve you with targeted information and advertisements as often as possible.

None of this is new or revolutionary. Data mining companies have been doing this since the advent of big data. Even in the midst of COVID-19, news reports say that Google’s COVID-19 website has been mining health data for profit. Shouldn’t that data remain private?

If you are okay with the practices Google, Amazon, and their competitors engage in, more power to you. Use and enjoy your smart speaker to its fullest extent. If you are concerned about your privacy though, you might want to step back and rethink what you’re doing. You cannot complain about intrusions into your privacy if you are giving it away with a smart speaker.

Author: Robin Gupta