The rise of artificial intelligence (AI) can’t be doubted — the popularity of robotics has spread through retail, hospitality and now into our homes. Scenes from Spielberg’s 2001 sci-fi blockbuster ‘A.I’ no longer seem a world away, and with recent gadgets such as the Amazon Echo, the technology is now affordable, shifting our interaction with AI from a novelty, to a part of everyday life.

Alas, with the ability to control music selection, request news updates and boil the kettle hands-free, it would be naïve to think there are no concerns around privacy while using devices like the Amazon Echo (otherwise known as Alexa) in your home.

So is Alexa’s constant eavesdropping an infringement on privacy, or is this a minor price to pay for the convenience? In this blog two Whiteoaks Echo owners explore both sides of the coin.

Alexa came into my life around Christmas time last year and I have never looked back. Whilst I’m aware of the concerns around ‘always listening’ devices such as the Echo and Google Home, I place greater value on the convenience this brings me over the potential embarrassment of having my private conversations leaked or snooped on.

The conversations that Alexa is privy to in my home largely consist of daily chit-chat and whatever is on the TV, therefore should Amazon’s servers be hacked, or in fact the device itself fall victim to cyber criminals, then I don’t believe there to be anything of value at stake. I can understand reservations businesses may have around confidential information or sensitive topics being discussed, but this is easily controllable by holding down the microphone button to temporarily restrict Alexa’s ability to listen or by simply unplugging it at the wall.

I actually find it quite reassuring to know that Alexa is constantly collecting data. For example, Alexa’s data collection may prove incredibly helpful in Arkansas where police are turning to Amazon for access to data from conversations the Echo may have overheard during a murder. To me this is a win-win scenario. If Amazon does oblige, then data is being used to get justice when it’s needed, and if the request is denied then Amazon’s commitments to customer privacy is explicitly demonstrated.

It’s fair to say my concerns around Alexa, and voice assistants in general, are linked to cybersecurity and snooping in a wider sense. However, I feel the in-home, ‘always listening’ concept brings a much more intimate aspect to the situation, almost as if I’m leaving the curtains open for my whole neighbourhood to watch every move I make.

The data-breach dangers are obvious, and of course I’m under the same threat of phishing and theft as I would be if somebody stole my online account details from Amazon. Although with Alexa, I wonder about the additional data she collects about my interactions with her (it?), such as my requests for details about certain locations or activities, which give her a much more personal insight into my life.

Alongside the data generated from when I do address Alexa, what about when I don’t? Voice assistants MUST listen even before they hear a ‘wake’ word, it’s built in to the technology, so it’s not a stretch to imagine criminals can develop wire-taps, essentially transforming a novel gadget into a covert ‘bug’.

To finish, I’d also like to make the point that HAL from Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ could have eliminated all of the astronauts aboard Discovery One without fail, had he been equipped with all the data that Alexa can generate.

What do you think about the role of voice-assistants in your life? Does the trade-off between convenience and risk deter you, or is it the standard in today’s connected world?


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