Privacy and Voice Assistants: An Oxymoron?
Voice assistants: mystery apps with mysterious powers
Today, the ubiquity of voice assistants (VAs) in our digital world can hardly be overlooked. They’re embedded in virtually every device we use regularly – whether it’s a personal computer, a phone, a smart TV, or a stand-alone device, such as a smart speaker or a smart alarm clock. From Apple’s Siri and Google’s Assistant to Amazon’s Alexa and Facebook’s Portal, there are billions of VA users worldwide and they’re growing in numbers as the technology proliferates. The reason for the significant popularity of VAs? They’re touch-free, easy and intuitive to use.
Capabilities and advantages of voice assistants
VAs come with some clear personal and professional advantages, aside from the ability to easily search for nearly anything on the web. Users can get things done quickly and efficiently simply by using voice commands – arguably, a more natural way for many people than typing or using touchscreen smartphone apps.
Despite not yet being available in all world languages and dialects and being far from perfect when it comes to voice recognition and accents, we can credit VAs with shortening the divide between literate and illiterate users. Sure, we can still argue whether disadvantaged groups can gain access to the technology needed to enable the use of voice assistants in the first place. Nevertheless, VA-enabled smartphones and smart gadgets continue to go down in price and Big Telecom often includes handhelds in telco contracts at no charge. Thus, we can expect that the barrier to using VAs will soon be lower than that of other tech requiring a certain level of literacy, education, or skill.
Enterprise voice assistants on the rise
In addition to personal use, VAs are also growing in popularity throughout the enterprise and across different sectors. VA apps are being successfully applied to common business functions, including sales, customer service, HR, recruitment, and executive assistance. There are many additional areas to explore, where the adoption of voice-enabled apps and assistants can help increase efficiency and reduce overhead. Going forward, we can expect to see voice functionality being built into many enterprise-level applications, and businesses should consider adopting the technology in their own operations.
The upside of voice assistants
Despite some of the issues that plagued VA tech in its early days, it can certainly help us accomplish much at faster speeds. Whether it’s checking the weather or the state of traffic, conducting a product or an informational search, scheduling an appointment, calling someone, or simply catching up on the news, VAs are real time-saving machines.
The dark side of voice assistants
Privacy is one of the biggest concerns we associate with using voice assistants today, and it is not without merit. For voice assistants to understand user requests, they must process them and – in some cases – record them for later use or reference. That’s when potential issues can arise – as users tend to entrust VAs with private and confidential information that they often want to keep to themselves. Yet, they are often in a position where they need to share this data with one of the Big Tech players who owns the VA tech they use. They, in turn, may use it for statistical or other purposes that users are not always aware of or able to control.
VA algorithms and functionality are often not fully transparent to consumers. How voice searches and conversations are stored, processed and used is typically buried somewhere in the lengthy pages of fine print that users need to accept to before querying Siri, Alexa, or Google. The big question on everyone’s mind, is of course, when are VAs listening to us? We expect them to only receive input when we engage with them or ask them a question, but are they eavesdropping on us the rest of the time? We hope not but can’t be entirely sure.
The future of voice privacy
Today, much of our lives are up for grabs by Big Tech. We have conversations with colleagues, friends, family, and loved ones via social media, messenger, video calling apps, and now virtual assistants, virtually all the time. There is little that Big Tech doesn’t know about us or our lives, based on all the data we reveal in our daily conversations. In a world where data is abundant and privacy rights are not yet where they should be, how do we reclaim ownership over the zettabytes of personal data we generate throughout our digital lives?
Voice assistant privacy tech
Digital data wallets could offer a solution for reclaiming user privacy and data rights – whether they’re based on blockchain or another technology. Users can then decide if and when to open them up to companies or individuals they want to entrust with their data.
Certainly, this feat can only be accomplished if users are always aware of what exactly they are sharing and allowing, for how long, how it will be governed, where, and by whom. Only at this level of granularity for each data-sharing request can we ensure that our wishes are respected today, and in the future. Luckily, tech is on our side when it comes to solving this complex problem – as it can just as easily take away privileges and access rights as it has previously granted them, often without a recourse.
Interested in learning more about building in privacy in your enterprise voice assistant or voice search app? Contact the Verhaert Digital team for a free consultation.