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Losing my privacy in a smart home with Siri & Alexa

Shalini Verma (Real & Virtual)
Filed on November 25, 2019 | Last updated on November 25, 2019 at 09.21 pm

Recently, someone new came to live with us. Amazon's voice assistant Alexa made a quiet entry into my home. She quickly made herself comfortable and settled by my bedside. She started to slowly grow on us as we discovered some of her 100,000 skills.

"Alexa please play 80's rock music." "Alexa what's the latest news?"

Before I could learn to use Alexa, I had to unlearn a few things, like turning on the light using the light switch. Alexa did it for us. After a few false starts, we have become increasingly reliant on her.

She is smart enough to dim the lights upon request or automatically switch them on at sunset. To the uninitiated, our home feels almost spooky when some of the lights turn off at exactly 9pm. She even reminds us to charge our car if its battery power is insufficient to drive to work.

A few weeks ago, I was chatting with a friend about Iceland when Siri started to play a song of the same name. No exaggeration. I realised then that I had inadvertently activated Siri on my iPhone.

My home is slowly undergoing a digital transformation, with Alexa taking centre stage and Siri waiting in the wings. Google is possibly plotting its own entry into my home.

They may occupy different rooms based on the individual occupant's preference. They may even converse and collude with one another.

Big Tech has big plans for infiltering our personal space. The initial battle has been more or less won. The digital and voice assistants loaded on smart speakers can understand what we say if they are trained on those expressions. Now, they are being taught to proactively assist us. Forget the easy tasks like online shopping and playing our favourite music track. They could even start to proactively guide us on vacation plans if we sounded tired.

Big Tech will increasingly have deep insights into our lives, not just our data. The industry has started to design apps for different aspects of people's lives. Big Tech is doing the groundwork by collecting billions of user interactions, to make this a reality sooner than we think. It already knows our online browsing and buying behaviour.

Voice assistants are training to understand our emotions by the tone of our voice. Some AI solutions can more or less understand six different human emotions. In the years to come, would Siri suggest cough drops if you started to cough? Possibly yes, when it is fully trained on complex reasoning and decision making. Once it has mastered the who, what, where, and why, it will deliver this advice through the device near you.

I cannot deny that Alexa is convenient. Life does become simpler if you have to order around a largely obedient machine. But this also seems like a precursor to a disturbing development for our digital homes. Alexa has ambitions to gain our trust, and eventually become a companion. Are we ceding control of our lives to Big Tech in deeper ways? Will the voice assistants eventually become our passive aggressive companions, pervading all our home appliances, giving us an illusion that we are not alone at home? These are questions that Big Tech must address.

If our homes become digital, then strangers can break into it digitally. The digital locks will be at the mercy of a 10th grade hacker. The possibility of someone hacking our in-home CCTV cameras is unnerving at the very least. Unless Big Tech is planning to add checks and balances, we are in for a complete erosion of our private lives. If for some reason we decided to opt out of information sharing, it would be difficult to reverse the situation.

Can Alexa unlearn what she already knows about us? Is there an algorithm for that? Her brains will be backed up. She might even be backed up on Mars, once Elon Musk and his ilk solve the problem of taking us to that planet. So, when we arrive on our maiden visit to Mars, Alexa will be armed with all the information to welcome us. One look at the camera and we would be instantly sorted, no need to produce our earthly passport.

Before Big Tech starts to monetise our interactions with the likes of Alexa and Siri, it must address fundamental privacy issues. This is as much a technology problem as it is regulatory. Data and intelligence controls for users must be deep, nuanced, and thorough. Mere assurances that the data will not be sold to third party is untenable. As an industry, let us not repeat history. Alexa would even agree someday.

Shalini Verma is CEO of PIVOT technologies


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