Monday, May 23, 2016

Voice-activated Services In The Home

The news these days is still filled with stories about encryption and the U.S. government but what about voice-activated services, digital assistants & self-incrimination. They might be the next big questions that need to be asked.

Self-incrimination is the act of exposing oneself (generally, by making a statement) to an accusation or charge of crime; to involve oneself or another [person] in a criminal prosecution or the danger thereof. The part in parentheses is import.

These days Amazon Echo & Google Home are in the news. They are voice-activated hardware & software that combine into a powerful digital assistant service. One description that I liked was that they helped folks manage everyday tasks. Oh, I haven't forgotten about Apple's Siri product but for now I'm going to concentrate on Amazon & Google.

"Hey Echo, order me three packs of toilet paper." That was easy.

"Hey Google, put on my calendar for tomorrow from 1 PM to 2 PM that I'm meeting Johanna & Fernando for lunch." Easy to do and I didn't have to type anything.

Remember the key phrase, voice-activated. So for these products to be responsive (after all, they are voice-activated), they are always on and listening to what's being said in their environment. How does Echo know that it is not your voice, but someone else's? Everything that is said is captured, sent back for processing then evaluated as far as what to do. Where is all that data stored? How long is it stored for and who has access to it? Some interesting questions to ponder as we move forward with this technology.

Which entities with Amazon and Google have access to this data? What about third parties that pay for access to customer data, can they see everything captured by Echo or Google Home? What about law enforcement, if they present a warrant for access to the data then what?

Let's say a master criminal (who has so far eluded law enforcement) decides to setup Amazon Echo at home. The master criminal then posts on Instagram about Amazon Echo and how great it is. Basically Echo is a listening device, a bug. So someone in law enforcement gets the idea to serve a warrant to Amazon for several accounts (law enforcement narrowed it down to about a dozen) that they believe are used by the master criminal. They are in luck, one of the account is tied to Echo. What happens to all those conversations that the master criminal held with others at home? Can they be used in court? There were no warrants issued to authorize the eavesdropping on conversations but on the flip side, the master criminal consented to allow a third party (Amazon) to in a sense record all conversations.

The courts are going to have to sort these legal questions out. Something for all of us to think about.


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