Big Tech Is Listening To Your Most Intimate Moments

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Written by Ann Brown
Silicon Valley
Big tech has ears on you. Everything you say in your home if you have Alexa, Siri, etc. is probably being heard and captured. In this June 14, 2018, photo an Amazon Echo is displayed in New York. Big banks and financial companies have started to offer banking through virtual assistants, Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, and Google’s Assistant, in a way that will allow customers to check their balances, pay bills and, in the near future, send money just with their voice. Regional banking giant U.S. Bank is the first bank to be on all three services, Alexa, Siri and Assistant. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Big tech has ears on you. If you have a virtual assistant in your home, everything you say –even if you aren’t addressing Alexa, Siri, etc.– is probably being heard and captured.

“A quarter of Americans have bought ‘smart speaker’ devices such as the Echo, Google Home, and Apple HomePod. (A relative few have even bought Facebook’s Portal, an adjacent smart video screen.) Amazon is winning the sales battle so far, reporting that more than 100 million Alexa devices have been purchased,” Bloomberg reported.

And it’s not just virtual assistants that are listening in. All smart devices have microphones built into them — from refrigerators and cars to phones and smartwatches.

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According to the consulting firm Juniper Research Ltd., by 2023 the global annual market for smart speakers will hit $11 billion with about 7.4 billion voice-controlled devices — or about one for every person in the world.

“Having microphones that listen all the time is concerning. We’ve found that users of these devices close their eyes and trust that companies are not going to do anything bad with their recorded data,” Florian Schaub, a University of Michigan professor who studies human behavior in connection to voice-command software, told Bloomberg. “There’s this creeping erosion of privacy that just keeps going and going. People don’t know how to protect themselves.”

When asked about the conventions being captured, Amazon declined interview requests by Bloomberg but said in an emailed statement, “Privacy is foundational to how every team and employee designs and develops Alexa features and Echo devices. All Alexa employees are trained on customer data handling as part of our security training.” The company and its competitors have said computers perform the vast majority of voice requests without human review.

Apple, which also declined to comment to Bloomberg, had for years used outside speech-software specialists to use the data to improve Siri’s abilities — and to capture conversations. In 2014, Apple took control of the procedure. 

Once Apple took control, it became more aggressive in its collecting and analysis of voices via conversations it had gathered. The company hired temps to search the clips for various languages, dialects, and cultural idiosyncrasies.

Aggressive might be an understatement. “By 2019, after Apple added Siri to products such as its wireless headphones and HomePod speaker, it was processing 15 billion voice commands a month; 0.2 percent of 15 billion is still 30 million potential flukes a month, or 360 million a year,” Bloomberg reported.

The risks of inadvertent recording grew along with the use cases, says Mike Bastian, a former principal research scientist on the Siri team who left Apple earlier this year. He cites the Apple Watch’s “raise to speak” feature, which automatically activates Siri when it detects a wearer’s wrist being lifted, as especially dicey. “There was a high false positive rate,” he says.

Apple’s HomePod is estimated to account for only 5 percent of the U.S. smart speaker business market while Amazon holds an estimated 70 percent.

The tech giants in Silicon Valley and beyond aren’t stepping back very much from conversation collection. According to an Amazon spokeswoman, privacy standards were built into Alexa from the beginning. In fact, the fine print actually permits Amazon the right to retain and experiment on its voice clips and the company keeps customer’s recordings indefinitely.

Amazon has transcription farms all over the world, which has many experts and consumers concerned but Amazon says it takes the “security of customers and their voice recordings seriously,” and that it needs a complete understanding of regional accents and colloquialisms to ensure that Alexa is a global product.

It’s not only Amazon that consumers are worried about. All of the tech companies are collecting conversations, even Google. To address these concerns, a Google spokeswoman responded, “Since hearing concerns, we have been committed to pausing this human transcription of Assistant audio while we enhance our privacy controls.” 

Facebook’s Portal, a combination smart speaker and videophone, includes a built-in microphone and camera. According to Facebook, Portal is a privacy-centric project and the company, which had been under attack for it lacking privacy policies, claimed that any stored mic or camera data would be kept on the device and off the cloud. Facebook, however, does use transcribed recordings to train its AI.

Tech leaders have made some changes as privacy concerns have grown. Google has, for now, has stopped its human transcriptions of Assistant audio and Apple is allowing users to delete their Siri history and opt-out of sharing more, made sharing recordings optional. Meanwhile, Facebook and Microsoft have added clearer disclaimers to their privacy policies.