Law in the Internet Society

"Alexa, ..."

-- By LaraNurick - 01 Nov 2017


I recently witnessed an apparently endless line of people waiting for free giveaways of the newly launched Google Home Mini ‘Digital Assistant’ (‘DA’). The current proliferation of DAs, from Amazon’s Echo, (which goes by ‘Alexa’), to Apple’s HomePod? , provoked me to question the impact of DAs on humanity, specifically on behavior, privacy and agency.


DAs are voice controlled, cloud-based speakers which use on-device keyword spotting. DAs are activated by wake words, upon which they act and then resume their sleep. Common uses include setting timers, alarms, appointments, calling or messaging, playing music and games, checking weather and traffic, making shopping lists and purchases as well as controlling the rapidly increasing third-party smart home appliances with compatible software. Since Amazon, the market leader, first released its Echo in 2014, its capabilities and user base have continually expanded. Last week, CEO Jeff Bezos claimed, “customers have purchased tens of millions of Alexa-enabled devices…and active customers are up more than 5 times since the same time last year”. Approximately 35.6 million Americans use a DA, with Gartner projecting a quarter of all household requests will use DAs by 2019.

What's at stake?


Using technology to mediate and action basic human needs is fundamentally altering human interaction. As Sherry Turkle warns, it conditions us to “expect more from technology and less from each other”. Whilst DAs’ hands-free centralized control is highly convenient and may benefit the disabled and the elderly; children’s behavior may be at risk. Although children enjoy the speedy access to information and available games along with the simulated company of DAs, research suggests the impact of increasing mediated interaction and the DAs’ lack of emotional intelligence may promote the use of simplistic language and inquiry, bad manners, compromised adult-child communication along with the need for instant gratification. DAs value simple clear diction over niceties and patience, potentially leading children to adopt similar behavior in all interactions.


Amazon’s Echo comprises two speakers, seven microphones and omnidirectional audio. When it detects its wake word ‘Alexa’, it streams what it hears as well as the fraction of a second beforehand to the cloud. This is troublesome because this information likely contains fragmentary intimate conversation which cumulatively may reveal significant information from within the most private of places; the home. While the Fourth Amendment historically provides the idea of an inviolate home, the controversial third-party doctrine suggests that one’s privacy may be overridden when one voluntarily shares information from inside the home with a third-party corporation. This was discussed following James Bates’ murder trial where police requested DAs’ recordings for the first time. While Amazon initially refused, these were eventually given up consensually, precipitating unresolved privacy questions. As DAs prevalence proliferates, moot questions arise regarding the operation of state law and the use of DA recordings where unknowing guests may be recorded, especially in states that require both parties consent for recordings. This issue is exacerbated by companies’ efforts to camouflage DAs within one’s home decor by improving their appearance, possibly making users even less aware of their potential intrusion. Bates’ case therefore highlights DAs’ potential to exploit owners and their invitees. It also confirms that companies like Amazon retain data indefinitely. Although deletion of information is possible on DAs, it is strongly discouraged as it “may degrade your Alexa experience” since DAs “get better over time” by processing speech, timbre and accents. For the majority of purchasers of DAs for convenience, deletion is counter to optimization and seems unviable. Moreover, manually turning a DA off fundamentally undermines its ‘beck-and-call’ utility. This compromise of privacy and agency for convenience may prove too high a tradeoff.

Notably, whilst devices like smartphones and apps like Facebook, FaceTime? and Skype already impinge on the private domain of the home, these differ in that they are not permanent fixtures in the home, are not necessarily always on, require more deliberate engagement and active "interfacing with a screen"; and do not automatically impact their non-immediate users and surroundings. Additionally, whereas the privacy implications of DAs are still largely unknown and spoken conversation is not yet as self-conscious as written communication, there is greater public awareness of the privacy compromises entailed in using these other services.


With the increasing use of DAs and corresponding fast paced product development, their potential capacity for surveillance appears limitless. Whereas first generation Echos had rudimentary voice capabilities, the recent Echo Look is a fashion assistant that is placed in the consumer’s most intimate closet or bathroom. It has inbuilt “hands-free camera, built-in LED, depth-sensing and computer vision-based background”. DAs now have “a brain, an ear and an eye”.

Moreover, DAs are always alert, enabling them to register their wake words. While companies insist this is passive, non-transmitting listening, the recent Google Home Mini incident, whereby the device recorded and transmitted everything it heard persistently due to defective touch-sensitive panels, demonstrates the precariousness of this always-on state and its potential for company/government/hacker exploitation. This evidences DAs’ technical sensitivity and inbuilt recording capability and the ease with which through a software update, physical exploit or glitch, the device transforms beyond consumers’ control.


If DAs perform human tasks, are privy to and participate in human conversation and punctuate daily behaviors, they may soon predict human thought and action it independently. This is troublesome. The more capable and humanized the machine becomes the more DAs will be embedded in the human psyche. This reliance on the machine by humans, who are traditionally defined by their capacity for independent thought and responsive action, paradoxically increases the chances of a role reversal whereby the consumer becomes consumed by the machine.

Given Aral Balkan’s observation that “data about us is us” as it can reveal everything about us, the potential issues with, and capabilities of DAs are problematic. Profit-motivated companies must ultimately decide how to use such data. This data allows them to make use of and influence the users’ behavior, thereby depriving humans of their agency and giving DAs a life of their own.

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r1 - 02 Nov 2017 - 00:06:46 - LaraNurick
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