Beware of your voice assistant – It may be eavesdropping on you

It can order dinner, switch on the light, play your favorite music or make a call. All this with just your voice command. But what if your virtual assistant does more than what is being asked?

The recent news about Alexa, Amazon’s voice assistant, sending an American couple’s private conversation to a random person in their contact list on its own has raised some serious concerns about these AI enabled devices.

While privacy advocates were quick to say we told you so, Amazon got into a firefighting mode. The tech firm later said that Alexa had misread some of the commands which led to this rogue incident. Yet, this is not an isolated case.

There have been several instances over the years of smart speakers constantly recording audio and even recording without being prompted. This despite being programmed to function only when triggered by wake words like “Hi, Alexa” and “Ok, Google”.

How much is too much?

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As we let these voice assistants manage our lives and also our homes, by giving unparalleled access to our personal data, it begs an important question. How safe is our information in the outside world? After all, voice assistants are always connected to the internet, constantly uploading our data to their parent servers, all beyond our control.

Already these companies are battling with accusations of using voice recordings of customers for targetted advertising. Giving credence to privacy fears are also the increasing number of studies that point to the technology’s misuse

Over the last two years, several researchers have demonstrated how they could secretly activate AI systems on smartphones and smart speakers by using ultra-high frequencies and hidden commands both inaudible to human ears. By embedding them into music files, Youtube videos and spoken text, these researchers were able to dial phone numbers, open websites, turn on airplane mode and much more.

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One can only imagine the extent of threat and privacy violations if these techniques make their way out of the lab and into the open. The possibility becomes all the more alarming as more and more people take to voice control.

Digital assistants are set to exceed 7.5 billion active devices by 2021, which is more than the current world population, according to the US census board

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Despite the growing debate on data privacy, voice assistants are only set to get smarter

Already both Amazon and Google, leading sellers of smart speakers, are trying to push boundaries of what these devices can achieve. They have filed patent applications that seek to extrapolate what users say and do. From using raw audio to monitoring your mood, health condition, speech patterns etc voice assistants are all set to have a mind of their own.

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Another big reason to raise a red flag, according to skeptics

While companies are working towards securing their user data, tech experts are also urging people to understand privacy and security features of these products before turning them on.

Voice is the new touch

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One cannot deny the growing adoption of voice technology as it swoops down on us.

The West has already taken a lead in successfully integrating AI into their everyday lives. A Pew research center survey shows that nearly half of US adults use digital voice assistants regularly.

India though is still in its nascent stage. But the popularity of voice is growing by the day, with more and more people taking to these digital assistants.

According to consulting firm Accenture, 39% of India’s online population will use some kind of voice assistant by the end of 2018

This is no small number for a country that is just stepping into this virtual reality. As the choice between privacy and convenience gets narrower, technology as an option is only becomes wider

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So like it or not, voice assistants are here to stay

They are always listening, are you willing to talk?

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