Which Major AI Companies Care Most About Your Privacy: Amazon, Google, Apple, Facebook?

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Exploring Privacy In The Age Of AI: Virtual Assistants and Smart Displays

These companies’ privacy policies are particularly important to consider in relation to their virtual assistants. All four companies have developed some sort of virtual assistant and/or smart speakers and displays. Although Facebook has yet to release its own version of Siri, Alexa, or Google Assistant, it plans to do so in the future.

Virtual assistants perform tasks and answer queries based off a user’s commands or questions. Users could ask virtual assistants to look up information on the Internet, but their true purpose is to provide users with personalized responses. Virtual assistants can be used for anything like asking about the local weather to controlling smart home devices.

Amazon, Apple, and Google all claim that your virtual assistant will only “listen” to you if you use a “wake word” or phrase such as “Ok, Google”. All three companies handle your queries in a slightly different manner.

iphone siri

According to Apple, it will “...try to keep all your information on your device where it makes the most sense and give you options to control how it’s shared.” For example, if you ask Siri to look for a specific picture on your phone, that picture will not be sent to its cloud. The name of the photo album may be sent to the cloud to provide better, quicker search results, however. Siri will also use a random identifier to track data while it is being processed. There is no way to physically turn off Siri’s microphone and camera, but users can go into their settings to disable Siri altogether.

Amazon used to send all queries to Amazon’s cloud where they were reportedly securely stored. Amazon would then use “cloud verification” to determine whether the wake word was used and then stop streaming audio and video once they determine that a query was answered. Some of Amazon’s newer devices now use “local voice control” to answer certain queries more quickly. These queries are not sent to the cloud and are only stored on your device. The microphone and camera on devices with Alexa can be physically turned off at any time. A light should appear on the device to indicate that the microphone or camera are on.

Google does not use a random identifier as it processes its information. Your Voice and Audio activity is saved to your Google account as long as you are signed in and have enabled that feature. Some Google devices have a physical button that can disable your device’s microphone and camera, while others will require you to go to your account settings.

Facebook does not have a virtual assistant, but it does offer its own smart display. Facebook is a little more careful about the privacy features of its Portal device than it is with its social media network. Portal will also listen for a wake phrase like “Hey Portal”. The device will then send information such as queries and commands, the volume, and resolution of a video call, and other environmental factors to Facebook’s Cloud. At the moment, Facebook uses Amazon's Alexa for a virtual assistant. We could not easily find information about their data sharing policies with one another. 

facebook portal video calling

Facebook claims that it does not “listen to, view or keep the contents of your Portal video calls”. Information like the number of people that were on screen during your video call, remain on your particular device. The only people that can access your information are the owners of the device, people who are physically near the Portal, and third-parties that you have given permission to. You are also able to physically disable to microphone and camera. A red light should appear once this is disabled.

All four companies also allow you to review and delete your web, audio, and video activity. However, Apple and Google provide the most accessibility. Android 10 in particular offers better location controls and features a new privacy section under settings. Google also allows users to decide when information can be deleted. Although Amazon Alexa and Facebook Portal permissions are fairly easy to access, their permissions for other services can be more daunting and more difficult to find.

Each company approaches virtual assistant and smart display privacy in a different way. At the moment, there seem to be few consistent standards. Users will need to be aware of the privacy controls that are available through each company and determine their own comfort level.

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