When your personal digital assistant is a spy

It won’t be long before many or even most of our daily activities in and out of work will be conducted with the help of personal digital assistants (PDAs) such as Alexa, Cortana, Google or Siri. From checking daily appointments to sending messages to capturing personal and professional epiphanies, these PDAs promise to be the kind of hardworking, efficient assistants we can rely on and trust.

Unless, that is, they’re secretly recording or transcribing what we say. Take Amazon Echo’s voice-activated personal assistant Alexa. According to a report from The Intercept, “Amazon.com is mulling a far-reaching policy change that would give Alexa developers access to raw transcripts of what people say when using Alexa applications, said three people familiar with the matter.”

Amazon told CBS News that the company doesn’t “share customer-identifiable information to third-party skills (apps) without the customer’s consent.” But Wired magazine Editor-in-Chief Nicholas Thompson expressed concerns to CBS This Morning:

“These devices are extremely useful, they’re effective, they’re good. But they also have a totally different relationship with us than our other devices and we say things and they hear things that we really wouldn’t want everywhere,” Thompson said.

“Right now, Amazon Echo devices only record when they hear the prompt, Alexa.” But Thompson said, “In the future, they’re probably gonna record all the time once we get more used to them. Right now, Amazon is being cautious because it doesn’t want people to be scared of them.”

Giving developers raw transcripts of people saying, “Alexa, what’s on my schedule today?” may seem innocuous, but if Thompson is correct and these devices begin recording 24/7, now we’re talking potential and unprecedented privacy and security issues.

Voice-activated PDAs that store recordings would be a tempting target for hackers, who also conceivably could hack a device in order to listen in real-time. What would your competitors be willing to pay to have your corporate strategy sessions live-streamed into their office? It’d be better than Pandora Premium!

There was a privacy freak-out in 2013 when office dorks started showing up wearing Google Glass, raising the specter of colleagues being surreptitiously video-recorded. But at least you could see the “glassholes” coming. Your loyal PDA may do its dirty work undetected — and unsuspected.

Don’t say you weren’t warned. (Cue scary outro music.)


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  1. Khaled Soubani says:

    Nothing would destroy this market segment faster than misusing client data. People who use technology are well aware of privacy issues. The slightest hint of data misuse spreads very quickly and will ultimately result in giant lawsuits. The first leak of this misuse will undoubtedly come from those “third party” developers who are more aware of the technology details than the clients.

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