New Reports Reveal Unsettling Facts About Voice Assistants

Microsoft reports that 41 percent of those using voice assistants are concerned about “trust, privacy and passive listening.” Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft, the major voice assistant providers, rely on humans to review collected voice data — although most people are unaware of this. Bloomberg also delved into Amazon’s Alexa team following a report that the company reviews audio clips from commands. Five employees familiar with the program revealed they can “in some cases easily find a customer’s home address.”

TechCrunch reports that users are concerned “over the type of data the Amazon employees and contractors were hearing,” including “criminal activity and even assaults … as well as … odd, funny or embarrassing things.”

The Microsoft survey also revealed that 52 percent of users are “worried their personal information or data was not secure, and 24 percent said they don’t know how it’s being used … [and 36] percent said they didn’t even want their personal information or data to be used at all.” Furthermore, 41 percent were “also worried their voice assistant was actively listening or recording them, and 31 percent believed the information the assistant collected from them was not private,” with 14 percent saying “they didn’t trust the companies behind the voice assistant.”

“The onus is now on tech builders to respond, incorporate feedback and start building a foundation of trust,” said Microsoft’s report. “It is up to today’s tech builders to create a secure conversational landscape where consumers feel safe.” But most users don’t want to entirely block digital assistants; 57 percent said they would rather speak to a digital assistant; and 34 percent say they like to both type and speak, as needed … [and] a majority — 80 percent — said they were ‘somewhat’ or ‘very’ satisfied with their digital assistants.”

Bloomberg reports that, although there’s no evidence that an Amazon employee tried to track down an Alexa user, “two members of the Alexa team expressed concern that Amazon was granting unnecessarily broad access to customer data that would make it easy to identify a device’s owner.” Georgetown Law’s Communications and Technology Clinic staff attorney/teaching fellow Lindsey Barrett noted that location data is “more sensitive than many other categories of user information,” because it allows someone to “find you when you don’t want to be found.”

An April 10th report from Amazon said that employees auditing Alexa didn’t have “direct access to information that can identify the person or account,” but in a new statement said that “access to internal tools is highly controlled, and is only granted to a limited number of employees.” Amazon’s Alexa Data Services team — spread around the globe — uses recordings of human speech to help train voice software.

After seeing a demonstration of how an Alexa employee could track down a user’s home address, Bloomberg concluded that “it’s unclear how many people have access to that system.” The two Amazon sources believed “the vast majority of workers in the Alexa Data Services group were, until recently, able to use the software.”