Are AI Voice Assistant Devices Like Amazon Echo Just Always-On Corporate Spy Machines?

Amazon seems to have struck gold with its Echo products, capitalizing on the trend towards digital assistants that became popular in smartphones. In similar fashion, smart speakers offer a level of intelligent convenience—just bark out a command and Alexa (if you're using an Echo speaker) will fetch weather information, look up facts on the web, and even order a pizza, among many, many other tricks. But this level of functionality requires that smart speakers constantly listen to their surroundings, leading some to wonder if consumers are giving up too much privacy.

There is an article at Gizmodo that advises against buying an Echo (or any voice-controlled) speaker for yourself, a family member, or friend. Basically, don't buy one, period, the site recommends. The reason? Having an always-on microphone in your home is a "chilling new development" in the Internet era, one that boils down to "effectively paying money to let a huge tech company surveil you."

Google Home Mini

Of course, that is not how these speakers are set up, and Amazon, Apple, and Google would all take exception to the claim. Smart speakers listen for a wake phrase or wake word before jumping into action, while retaining a very brief snippet of recorded audio just prior. However, one of the arguments against owning a smart speaker is that it can be hacked. They're also susceptible to bugs. Case in point, some of Google's Home Mini speaker were recently found to be constantly listening to owners, by way of a glitch.

"We learned of an issue impacting a small number of Google Home Mini devices that could cause the touch mechanism to behave incorrectly. We rolled out an update on October 7 to mitigate the issue. If you're still having issues, please feel free to contact Google Support at 1-855-971-9121 to get a replacement Google Home Mini," Google said at the time.

Glitches are not the only concern. Earlier this year, police had requested Echo voice data from Amazon in relation to a murder investigation. The hope was that there would be incriminating audio from the murder suspect, who owned the Echo in question. Amazon initially refused to hand over the data citing the First Amendment, though later did when the murder suspect granted permission.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ALCU) also has concerns with always-on speakers with microphones.

"Overall, digital assistants and other IoT devices create a triple threat to privacy: from government, corporations, and hackers. It is a significant thing to allow a live microphone in your private space (just as it is to allow them in our public spaces). Once the hardware is in place, and receiving electricity, and connected to the Internet, then you’re reduced to placing your trust in the hands of two things that unfortunately are less than reliable these days: 1) software, and 2) policy," Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst at ALCU, wrote in a blog post.

In the end, nobody can really answer if a smart speaker is right for you. That is a personal decision based on how comfortable you are with the privacy risks, weighed against the functionality and convenience. The one thing we can say, however, is that it looks like smart speakers are here to stay.