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Google Home and Amazon Echo spy on you, ALL THE TIME!

The biggest question that is threatening the consumers and federal governments across the world is – Are people comfortable letting go of their privacy for smarter and effective technology? The answer is definitely not comfortable either ways, however that is the reality of our tech-enabled world.

Consumers engage with Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant and Siri, the popular voice assistants, on a daily basis, without realising that their conversations are actually getting recorded.

Several recent reports suggested that Google, Siri and Alexa were able to hear personal consumer conversations that were recorded. The idea of recording these conversations is to improve the abilities of voice assistants and make it closer to human speech. However, the news reports suggested that the employees at these giant software firms paid attention to other details other than what they were mandated to do.

The revelation has brought all the voice assistants under the scanner and a popular news outlet verified that the recordings do not include the complete name and address of the consumer when the employees are listening to it. In an already published news report, it was mentioned that the sample size of the recordings was not huge. However, the bigger question is that do the buyers realise that their private talks, rows, financial matters, personal life are getting recorded and heard by someone. So, are these platforms infringing on individual privacy more than buyers realise?

Even when Google Home and Amazon Echo smart speakers aren’t activated, the speakers are eavesdropping closely, often on private conversations.

How does the technology work?

Once a user says “Hey, Google”, “OK, Google” or “Alexa”, the platform starts to record. The recordings are then sent to their subcontractors, who review them later to aid them in understanding how different languages are spoken.

Despite the security measures implied by these platforms, the data is still getting collected with them. These platforms have actual conversations of audiences that can be mapped to create patterns and understanding of the individual audiences and geographies. The data on the audiences has been used effectively in past to turn opinions into different directions.

It is very evident that Google, Apple and Amazon are listening into private conversations through their speaker devices. People have often mentioned and complained that while they are talking about pizzas, perfumes, actors, or movies, the next time they are on an app related to it, they are getting suggestions on the same subjects. It indicates that the tech behind these platforms is listening to the conversations and creating a matching pattern and throwing back ads to the consumer.

Nikhil Pahwa, Founder, Editor & Publisher, MediaNama, says, “This is definitely an infringement of privacy. They share data with other 3rd parties which include personal conversations. This is done without the user’s consent. Although there is no privacy law in India, this is still a case of invading the user’s privacy. People should take Google to court.”

Narrating from a personal experience, I was once talking about Al Pacino on a call with a friend. The next time I checked Netflix, all I could see were Al Pacino movie suggestions.  This was extremely uncanny.

An industry veteran, who did not wish to be named, pointed out that these platforms are selling consumer profiles according to the conversations recorded and selling it to other 3rd party platforms.

He further explained the modus operandi of these assistants and platforms. “These devices listen to everything even when not activated. Alexa or Google Home still need to look out for a vocal activation command allowing them to listen to you even when not activated. Furthermore, the information gathered is not only sold for advertising and marketing purposes. This information is sold to anyone who can monetise it. This information once on cyber platforms can never be deleted. Even if one manages to shut down an Amazon or Google and delete all the information they have, it still lurks in the cyber space as this information is sold to other 3rd party platforms and they sell it furthermore. Even if you manage to delete one copy of the information, what about the thousand other copies? The safety of this information with 3rd party platforms is highly under question.”

Now comes the scary part of this issue. Everything today is online. From ordering food to even banking. Imagine this information being leaked or shared. Also, with voice activation coming to a rise, there are programs that can mimic your voice. Alexa and Google Home like devices make this process easier. Through these programs it is very easy to steal one’s identity.

Operational technology is the next big thing. With smart devices taking control of home security systems, electronics and with the presence of Alexa and Google Home, privacy doesn’t exist at all. They have all the information about one’s life with them and they use it for various purposes. Imagine this, all the information about your home valuables – whether it’s your safe, where you keep your keys, your important documents, etc. – all this information stuck at your door. This situation is like that and privacy doesn’t exist at all with the presence of these devices.

The question is – Are these platforms infringing the users’ privacy by listening in? Is this authorised in India and who would be responsible if data is misused in the future?

An expert pointed out that once a user logs on to these assistants, they directly give their consent to record the conversations. The onus is back on the consumer and not on the platform.

So, we are talking about a market of products that are worth billions of dollars. As per an IDC report, a total of 753,000 units of smart speakers were shipped in 2018 in India. Amazon remained the leader in the Indian market with a 59 per cent unit share, followed by Google with 39 per cent unit share. The research points that Indians still sample voice assistants in their phones and then go on to purchase these devices for their homes. The market is still in its nascent stages with a massive opportunity lying ahead of them.

Amazon has been pushing Echo devices in India and is advertising heavily around it. They have launched multiple campaigns to do so across all the mediums and have advertised across big impact properties.

On the other hand, Google has also been advertising Google Assistant to spread awareness on how the life becomes easy with Google Assistant. And finally, Apple phones are a very dear brand to Indian consumers, thereby ensuring that Siri reaches every nook and corner of the country.

Experts have always pointed out that cyber privacy laws need to be made in India, especially with the penetration of these devices in our large population. Europe had passed the GDPR law, which took care of the cyber privacy of people and heavily fined the brands and platforms found breaking it.

India, too, will soon pass a law called the Data Protection Bill of India, which will be similar to GDPR.

Rakshit Tandon, Cyber Security Expert and Consultant Safe Surfing Campaign, IAMAI Internet and Mobile Association of India, confirms this by saying “We are expecting this law to be passed very soon. The Data Protection Bill had already been drafted and published for public opinion in January 2018 and the IT Minister has said that it will be out very soon. Once this is out it will change the functioning of all the companies that are involved in this.”

This will be great news when it comes to the privacy of Indian citizens. Although whether this will really stop the infringement of privacy is still under question.

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