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Virtual Assistant Privacy Concerns

Virtual assistant used to mean an actual human being sitting somewhere far away and assisting someone with their business activity. Nowadays, a virtual assistant is often used to refer to digital virtual assistants like Siri and Amazon Alexa.

Digital virtual assistants are growing in popularity, and almost everyone has one in their picket by the virtue of owning a smartphone. Beyond the smartphone, there are dedicated gadgets which bring the virtual assistant functionality to the home and office in a variety of form-factors. The most prominent lineup is Amazon?s Alexa devices, which come in an array of sizes and a few colors. Virtual assistants are able to perform a variety of digital tasks like answer general knowledge questions, setting up of reminders, and playing music. But along with the convenience there are serious privacy ramifications.

Always listening

The way smart assistants work, or operate by default, is that they are constantly listening for their command or ?greeting? (like ?Hey Siri?, or ?Alexa?) and upon hearing the greeting the device listens and responds to the instructions that follow. Often, these devices or apps will record the instructions and save it in the cloud.

Initially, this does not sound like a big deal until one realizes that the device is always listening, and that false greeting triggers would result in potentially private conversations being recorded and stored in the cloud. There have been anecdotal reports that people have noticed customized advertisements or product recommendations on major websites after they discussed or mentioned a particular product or brand in the vicinity of a smart device with virtual assistant capabilities. I have experienced this personally.

Regardless of the lengthy privacy policies and EULAs (end user license agreement) ensuring anonymity, and privacy, there is no telling how this data is used, or how good these devices are at sticking to what they are supposed to be doing.

The most popular virtual assistants

  • Siri - Available in Apple devices
  • Google Assistant - Available in Google devices and apps
  • Amazon Alexa - Available in Amazon devices

How to reduce your privacy risk as it relates to digital virtual assistants

It is important to note that there is extremely difficult to eliminate the privacy risks posed by virtual assistants completely. This is due to the fact that every smartphone has a virtual assistant built in. Even if you yourself do not have a smartphone, it is highly likely most of the people with whom you interact on a daily basis have one. But, you can reduce your risk exposure.

To reduce the potential negative privacy impact by virtual assistants, you can at least turn off the listening function on your virtual assistant enabled devices. This means that the device will not be continuously listening for the greeting. Every device does offer a manual activation for the assistant such as long-pressing a button or touching an activation screen. With this approach you are trusting the device manufacturer?s claim that the settings used for turning off the virtual assistant actually do what they say they do.

The best way to reduce your exposure to digital virtual assistants is to at least not have any yourself, or turn them completely off when the device is not actively in use. This is a difficult and time-consuming way to go about it, but it is the only way to ensure that the device is not listening when it is not supposed to.

As technology advances, there will be more innovations that will result in privacy concerns. So, it is best to keep a watchful eye when a new product or service is introduced to understand the potential impact it might have on your privacy.