Just over half of households with internet access in the UK own a voice assistant – an Echo Dot or Google Hub for example – and there is evidence that this number will continue to increase. Listening devices can have a massive impact on improving independence, control and convenience in someone’s home, however there is reluctance amongst some to use them. As Care Technologists, we often hear people talking about how “Alexa is always listening to you” and “Google is recording all of your conversations”. So how much truth is there behind such ideas? And what are some of the things to consider around data privacy and voice assistants?
It is undeniable the convenience a voice assistant can provide. Being able to switch the lights and heating on and off with a simple voice command can have an incredibly positive impact on people who maybe struggle with their mobility. But it is also undeniable that in order to answer these voice commands, a voice assistant has to be able to listen to you. Sound unnerving? Don’t worry, there are ways to control how much is heard by your voice assistant.
Using an Echo listening device (Amazon)
With any Alexa device, there is the option to switch the microphone off completely with the mute button. Your Alexa device will light up red when the microphone is muted and this can be really useful – even for smaller things, like if you are wanting to avoid any unwanted disruptions during a film. With devices that have a camera such as the Echo Show there is also the option to slide a cover over the camera, which is great if you have the drop-in function enabled but are not wanting anyone to see you at a particular time.
Using other listening devices
Furthermore, any voice assistant will make you aware if they are listening by lighting up or making a chime sound. Alexa for example will only listen to what you are saying when you say the default wake word “Alexa” – this is called keyword spotting. Think of it like a strainer; the Alexa device will allow the words you say to filter through until it hears “Alexa”, at which point it will activate its listening and recording capabilities.
If this isn’t enough, you can also ask Alexa to delete any voice recordings either from a certain time frame, or the entire time you have owned the device. This can be done by asking your Alexa device directly using your voice, online or through the Alexa app. With the Google assistant, you can ask it to enter ‘guest mode’ which means interaction will not be saved at any time, protecting your privacy even further.
What about data collection and voice assistants? For a lot of people this has become an increasingly important issue and something that is often at the front of people’s minds, especially when it comes to smart technology – and understandably so. In the summer of 2021, Amazon received a £636m fine from the European Union due to collecting customers’ data unlawfully (Amazon hit with $886m fine for alleged data law breach – BBC News). So to say that companies like Amazon are collecting data for purely benevolent reasons to improve their customers’ experience would be naïve. However, companies like Amazon are so regularly in the limelight that as consumers, we know at least that their procedures and data processes are scrutinised carefully and regularly. This is why we sometimes still use their technology over others that may not receive such frequent review.
On the flip side of this, data collection isn’t all bad- it’s important for the functioning of voice assistants, particularly when it comes to learning and responding to the Scottish accent! By collecting data like the sound of your voice and how you might pronounce certain words, it means that it devices are able to adapt to how you speak and provide you with a more accurate service.
Ultimately we believe that there is a huge benefit to everyday living by using virtual assistants. In order to utilise a voice assistant and for it to work well, our data being collected is going to play a part in that. Whether it is to have a more personalised product, or for our voices to be more easily recognised, it is a decision we have to make when considering using voice assistants. The benefits of voice assistants that we as Care Technologist have seen for those in receipt of care ultimately outweighs concerns around privacy.