The increasing popularity of virtual assistants is leading us to ask ourselves new questions. We feel that they listen and watch us 24 hours a day, that they analyse all our words to get to know us better. Where is our privacy in all this?
Virtual voice assistants are not something radically new and, in fact, the original versions have existed for more than ten years. Since then they have improved a lot, but the great novelty is not that but the fact that they are beginning to settle physically in our homes. Through several types of speakers, these assistants which previously lived on our phones and tablets are managing to move into our homes.
We are talking about intelligent systems that allow us to interact with devices through a conversation. They recognise our voice, understand what we are asking and respond with a synthesised voice.
That technology surrounds us to make our lives more comfortable and efficient is something positive, but we must be aware that living with a speaker that records what we say has a certain impact on our privacy.
If you want your smart speaker to be able to keep your upcoming appointment with the doctor, you will have to give it access to your calendar. The same happens if we ask the maps application to take us to a certain place: we are telling it where we are and where we want to go at all times.
Meanwhile, collecting information, are service providers such as Google, Facebook and Apple. This is not about being afraid of the unknown. It's about understanding the way things work.
“Virtual voice assistants were already in existence, but now they are moving into our homes in the form of speakers and other devices.”
What Google and Apple know about you
The continued use of services and applications allows service providers such as Google, Apple or Facebook to build a fairly complete data profile.
Logically, everything depends on the information you give them. And normally you give them this information in exchange for making your life easier. Starting from these premises, we can distinguish 4 large sets of personal data:
Who you are: beyond a series of basic data that in all likelihood you have already granted (name and surname, email, ID), the regular operation of virtual assistants ensures that you keep revealing your favourite hobbies, the music and food you like, the movies and series which have you hooked, whether you have children, which sector you work in, whether you are religious, your political tendencies etc...
Where you have been: unless you deactivate your mobile's GPS (which undeniably means giving up useful services such as the browser), virtual assistants will be able to know where you have been and the places you frequent (your home, your workplace, your usual routes).
Who your friends are: instant messaging services and social networks make it very easy to know who the people around you are or who you talk to and whether they share your tastes and plans. Combining it with the previous point, it is also possible to know if, where and when you have been with them.
Your future plans: your internet searches tell a story about your curiosity, but also about your future interests such as travel, buying a house or having an operation.
Virtual assistants can make your life easier
Once the data we transfer is accepted, it makes no sense to fear technology and believe that the world is conspiring against us. True revolutions such as virtual assistants can help us make our lives better.
In a few years it will be normal to live in a smart home. The speaker or smartphone will not be the only thing connected to the internet; all home appliances will be too. The virtual assistant will be the supreme intelligence that governs them all.
With the operating data that intelligent light bulbs, the heating system or a television set can offer us, we can generate usage and consumption patterns which are very valuable for your quality of life. Imagine that you simply have to open your mouth and say:
"Alexa, open Endesa and tell me the amount of my last electricity bill".
It's no secret. The way in which service providers collect information is through our devices (smartphone, computer, smart speaker etc.) and they do so with our authorisation.
For this reason, only when we activate them expressly through a voice command do they begin to listen and record what we say. It is one thing for your microphone to always be on alert in case you say the activation command. And a very different thing altogether for it to be dedicated to recording 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
This is the official version and there is nothing to indicate otherwise. What has occurred is that there have been occasional failures (such as the user who requested the data on his activity from Amazon and, by mistake, received 1,700 audio recordings of a stranger) and controversy about the use that service providers will make of these data (specifically: they do not only use them to make the assistant work better but also to try to sell us other products).
In any case, and as always when we are willing to grant personal data in exchange for a better service, it is useful to know how to control privacy in virtual assistants.
“Smart speakers start recording only when activated by a default voice command.”
Controlling privacy in Google
When talking about privacy and personal data, we usually mention Facebook. But in reality Google is the king of data and the company that knows the most about us. It depends on the privacy settings we have and the devices and services we use, but in general it knows many details.
Have you ever thought about what Google knows about you? Google itself allows you to review this thoroughly:
The places where you have been: you can enter this website that the company keeps, where you have the entire history of kilometres travelled or places visited, day by day. This happens when you have Google Maps' location history enabled.
What you are searching for and the places you enter: your internet searches are minutely detailed on the My Activity website. It doesn't matter if you delete your Chrome history, it still exists.
The videos you watch: youTube belongs to Google and it also keeps an exhaustive record of what you are searching for and viewing. Visit this address and you will see that there are all the videos played, searches and comments you have made.
Your interests: if you want to know how Google presents advertising based on your interests, visit this address. They are quite generic issues, but they help you get an idea of how much the search engine company knows about you.
The life of your mobile: if your smartphone has the Android operating system, there is a record of the applications you install and use, as well as the time when you do it. It is interesting to review this address to know the applications to which we have given permission to access our Google account. They also have access to your phone contacts.
Your life on Google: as occurs with Android, all services related to Google keep an activity log. What you upload to the Cloud (Google Drive), books and music purchased on Google Play, etc...
To perform a complete privacy review and to personalise the Google experience, you have this address.
Controlling privacy at Apple
Like Google, Apple receives a lot of personal information due to the number of active devices and services around the planet.
In this path towards giving importance to privacy they have created a dedicated website, with considerable information and tools, as well as tips for the protection of our data. There is also a report on transparency in the event that third parties ask Apple for our information.
There are two important areas. In the first one, they explain the personal information that their systems and services collect. In the second one they help us with privacy management, informing us how to protect our devices, or Apple ID management.
If what you want is to consult your data, then you will have to go to this address. There is usage data for apps, documents, photos, videos, contacts or calendars.
The balance between what you grant them and what they give you
We must learn to manage our personal data. If we decide not to grant anything, not even the most basic data, we will have to give up services that are changing many people's lives. If we grant everything to anyone and without understanding why, we will give up our privacy.
In the middle ground lies the key: it is necessary to understand that most of these services are free because, in some way, we are paying with our data. Therefore, it is up to each of us to take stock and assess whether what they are giving us is worth it in exchange for letting them know about us.
“Many digital services are free because, in some way, we pay for them by granting our personal data.”