Virtual assistants like Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant are an increasing presence in Australian homes. But exactly how safe are these newest members of today’s digital families?
Today, digital assistants can be found in upwards of one in six Australian homes. And according to Amazon’s own research, more than three-quarters of us anticipate they will be a key feature of family life within the next five years.
Most of us are aware that smart speakers with artifically intelligent assistants like Alexa, Google Assistant and Siri are amazing at doing our bidding - controlling our other devices, answering questions, helping to manage our daily routines.
Fewer realise they are also continuously eavesdropping on our families’ conversations, including those of our kids. Or that they are doing so without our consent or knowledge.
So … is that a problem? Many believe it is, especially since it’s come to light that our audio recordings are being analysed by human employees at Google and Amazon.
Alexa, are you listening?
A 2019 expose found Google was employing thousands of contractors around the world to transcribe Assistant conversations. The tech giant defended the practice as necessary to improve its algorithm.
Amazon followed the same procedure with the Echo, and offered the same rationale. Recordings were being “transcribed, annotated and then fed back into the software as part of an effort to eliminate gaps in Alexa’s understanding of human speech and help it better respond to commands," the company admitted.
On the basis of those practices, Amazon is facing a US lawsuit alleging the company is violating child privacy laws by capturing audio from millions of kids. And in June 2021, after tens of thousands of customers complained that Alexa was secretly collecting voice recordings, the company stopped requiring customers to pursue claims in arbitration, rather than a court of law.
The move was widely seen as a tacit acknowledgment of wrongdoing, and the company has paid out thousands of claims against it.
Other concerns for parents
In a bold attempt to restore consumer confidence, the company proceeded to launch its Echo Dot Kids Edition in 2020 - and the gamble appears to have paid off. Described by critics as “a candy-coated, rainbow-plastered version with extra parent-pleasing perks,” the Echo Dot has flown off the virtual shelves in Australia and beyond.
But concerns remain. And digital eavesdropping - and the potential privacy breaches it can lead to - isn’t the only risk parents should be aware of.
In the absence of parental controls, kids may use digital assistants to
Unsafe at any speed?
So do these potential risks mean digital assistants are unsafe at any speed? Not necessarily. For one thing, strong, customisable parental controls like Family Zone can be used to put up guardrails around kids’ use.
What’s more, the plusses for kids may well outweigh the minuses. Those benefits may include
Is the convenience worth the risk of constant home surveillance? And how much responsibility should companies like Amazon, Google and Apple assume for the safety and privacy of their users? These are questions that are being asked with increasing urgency by consumers and experts alike.
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