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Why Do Virtual Assistants Spy On Us?



Can you imagine having a man sitting in your living room 24 hours a day? And when family or friends arrive, we start questioning him to show how much he knows about us and the whole universe with phrases like “Sir, what is my name?”, “How old am I?”, “Is it going to rain today? ? ”

Well, that is what exists today in many homes. "Gentlemen" and "ladies" who, without running out, attend our demands any day at any time, just by saying a simple Ok or Hey! They are voice assistants and smart speakers. And they have arrived to stay.

Almost 80% of us know what a voice assistant is and 50.2% are aware that they have one - all smartphones already include it - according to the Ymedia Study on Virtual Assistants.

The use we give to virtual assistants

And why do we use smart speakers primarily? According to another Adobe Digital Insights study, to listen to music 70% of the time and to make weather consultations in 64%.

These devices can also include functionalities or skills that third parties would put into the game: manufacturers of electrical and construction equipment (plugs, blinds, light bulbs, heaters, etc.) that would connect the attendees with our home, thus making it a home automation.

However, during the next years what will be developed more are the personalized experiences for the user thanks to the contextual and cognitive understanding: the assistant will be the one who calls for us to businesses, companies or customers, makes appointments for us and gives us goal in the agenda according to our availability.

The most popular and used voice assistants are Google Assistant, Siri (Apple), Alexa (Amazon), Cortana (Microsoft) and Bixby (Samsung), thanks to the fame that the smart speakers have achieved and the serial integration of many of the on smartphones (in a second phase we will see how they reach more integrations: TV, refrigerators or washing machines).



Google is the most reliable in relation to the success tests in an 800 question test conducted by Loup Ventures, with 88%. In terms of languages, Google Home also wins all the others, reaching 30, compared to 20 Siri, 13 Cortana or 8 Alexa.

And what about privacy?

In the same way that in the last two years there has been an exponential increase in sales, we can also say that the social alarm that has been created around them has been exponential. “Having a voice assistant at home is worse than putting a stranger and having him day and night on your couch”, “they spy on you, they hear your conversations, they record them”, “they sell your data to third parties”, “They can put us a Trojan and violate all our privacy!”…

As with all technologies, when you add a new one to your life, you must know what you are buying and who really offers you security and trust, just like smartphones, Smart TVs, or any other device.

Throughout the West, especially in Europe with the recent creation of the European Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), we are very committed to data protection, as we understand that you must always protect the user. However, the same does not happen in the East. For some countries in the Asian world, data is a common good, not intrinsic to the person, and therefore it is not the obligation of the state to protect their privacy or guarantee their inviolability.

Given this fact, would you buy a Made in China voice assistant or opt for a Western one that guarantees established privacy policies?

According to Tomas Gonzalez, head of Marketing and Business Development at Kabel, a Microsoft partner, and an expert in Artificial Intelligence, which, as was evident in the last Microsoft Convention in Las Vegas, the legislation goes far behind the technology, especially in relation to artificial intelligence. Therefore, the big technology companies have proposed to become advisors to the countries and their governments to help them legislate in the face of this technological challenge. Emmanuel Macron and France have become pioneers in this regard.

Crawling linguists

But let's get into the part that affects us: Do they listen to us or do they not listen to us? Yes, they can do it. But they don't do it 24 hours a day. According to recent statements by Google Product Manager, David Monsees, they use teams of linguists who randomly track and listen to conversations in order to improve the cognitive system and that the devices can better understand what we tell them.

In total, they analyze 0.2% of the recordings of our conversations with family, friends, partners, etc.


But if we understand how a virtual assistant works, for example, using the LUIS conversational intelligence engine used by Microsoft or Amazon (Language Understanding Intelligent Service, a service based on machine learning to create a natural linguistic understanding), we must be clear that AI You have to learn patterns (voice recognition + machine learning algorithms) and these can only be taught previously by human behavior.

Do we snoop more like a speaker or a smartphone?

And why do we only care about smart speakers when we carry a 24-hour device that can monitor and track virtually all of our data? We cannot forget about faults in the FaceTime app that have allowed users to be recorded before they had picked up the phone or apps of hotels, trips or banks that recorded the screen of our smartphone.

When an app asks us for permission to access the camera, microphone or phonebook, and this request has nothing to do with the application's own functionality, it is better not to download it, or at least, refuse all permissions. If not, we will be opening the possibility that they work in the background and, without our consent, take screenshots, take photos or record videos and send it to an external server.

It is at this moment when common sense and responsibility come into play. Let's not blindly trust the altruism of companies that design free applications just for the "common good." There is a formula that should always be respected in the digital world, ethics + humanity + technology, whose addends should remain unchanged.

Technology should make us better

As Jose Luis Casal, an advisor in Innovation and Business Strategy, explains, we are immersed in a change of era in which technology will be ubiquitous. Its objective must be to empower us, to make us better, but not to use and control us. In our hand it must be to decide which technologies will accompany us in our day to day; and technology companies will have to seduce us with transparency. Only then can we trust them.

We need to know (and not in an endless number of pages), what they want from us, what they will do with our information. Let us trust that regulators protect us and do not succumb to the power of large technology companies by achieving that protection without becoming an obstacle to innovation and progress.

Unquestionably, we cannot stop the advances in technology, since the benefits are much greater than the problems it can cause. To do this, as a society, our duty is to regulate it and make large companies comply with current legislation.