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Commercial Question

“Alexa, let’s talk about privacy”

updated on 21 February 2017

Question

To what extent does Amazon’s Alexa, and interfaces like it, present a breakthrough opportunity for computer-driven assistances and home automation, and to what extent should any enthusiasm be tempered by privacy concerns?

Answer

The seminal 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey imagines a sinister, ever present, voice-driven assistant in the form of HAL, a sophisticated, conversational AI whose intentions are, in the final act, revealed to be anything but assistive. Kubrick’s 2001 explored themes of privacy, communication and our complex relationship with artificial intelligence. Almost 50 years later and for just £149.99, online giant Amazon will ship a sophisticated, conversational, voice-driven assistant to your door, albeit one with the somewhat friendlier name, Alexa.

In light of contemporary concerns around privacy, communication and our relationship with assistive technologies, this edition of Burning Question explores the extent to which Amazon’s Alexa and similar technologies present a breakthrough for home automation, as well as the privacy concerns surrounding computer-driven assistance.

Home integration

At its most simplistic, the Echo, a nine-inch polycarbonate cylinder of omnidirectional microphones, limited processing power and Wi-Fi connectivity provides little more than a voice-activated front end to Amazon’s assistant, Alexa – and through it, to Amazon’s vast store of physical and digital goods and services. However, in so many other ways, the Echo represents a crucial first foothold from which the online giant might more closely integrate itself into full-time domestic life.

The Echo, and products like it (Google’s Homedevice, Lenovo’s Smart Assistant and others) each provide broadly similar feature sets and interact with their user in similar ways. Each waits in silence, microphones primed, awaiting a simple ‘wake word’. On hearing Alexa, Ok, Google or something similar, the device triggers a more complex audio processing circuit. In this active state, the Echo records a user’s voice, packages the audio into compressed form, uploads the clip for processing through Amazon’s Web Services (AWS) platform and delivers a response which Alexa vocalises through the Echo’s inbuilt speakers. With a low-latency internet connection, the whole process can be completed in less than a second. The great advantage of the Echo’s approach here is in its ‘always-on’, mains-powered design. Unlike similar assistants (eg, Apple’s phone and tablet-based Siri), by giving Alexa a permanent physical home in the home, Amazon’s assistant is detached from concerns around battery life and can provide a constant, permanent connection to Amazon’s services.

Alexa comes from the box with a variety of so-called ‘skills’. Its talents range from simple requests (“Alexa, play Justin Bieber”), to shopping (Alexa, add Tabasco to my shopping list”), to more complex smart home integrations (Alexa, dim the kitchen lights to 50%”). Alexa can also answer simple and complex questions (eg, “When is the next train to St Pancras?”, “How tall is Donald Trump?and so on). Each of these functions provides Amazon with both obvious revenue opportunities (media streamed through its online services, products purchased through its store), and more subtle, though arguably even more valuable user data, through which Amazon may build better user profiles.

As more and more users grant Alexa access to their daily lives, AWS’s machine learning platform is able to better understand and assist each user, much as Google’s ad-sense platform learns to better target ads over time to specific demographics. However, unlike Google’s approach and indeed unlike Apple’s phone, tablet and Mac-based Siri, Alexa is an open platform. Third parties can – and increasingly have – developed and expanded the assistant’s functionality far beyond its initial abilities. Looking forward, expect Alexa (and its competitors) to tie ever closer to home automation products and connected services. A Jetsonian future of connected fridges triggering Amazon Fresh deliveries on discovery of limited supplies is, at this point, months, not years away.

Home invasion

It is this potent cocktail of always-on connectivity, rich third-party extensibility and Amazon’s aggressive development of machine learning that explains both Alexa’s future potential and the very real risks such devices might pose to individual privacy now. In 2016 we saw reports of police in Georgia issuing search warrants to Amazon in the hope of obtaining recordings from the home of an Echo owner, in which a body was found. Amazon for its part staunchly maintains that the Echo may only record and upload audio following a ‘wake word’trigger. However, such statements may prove to be of little comfort in a world in which the privacy policy for Samsung’s latest line of smart TVs reads “please be aware that if your spoken words include personal or other sensitive information, that information will be among the data captured and transmitted”. In addition, recent commentary from the US legal press suggests that the Echo’s inability to discriminate the age of individuals from which it stores recordings may flout Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) provisions, which prohibit the recording of people younger than 13. COPPA provides for fines of up to $16,000 per infringement for any company found to be in breach of this provision. Amazon has shipped over five million Echo units in the United States in the past two years. An interesting consideration.

Regardless of whether such concerns are founded at present, what is clear is the appetite among the public for smart, connected devices and an apparent general apathy toward any consequent privacy considerations. In a world in which nefarious access to the data such devices collect by both state and private parties is rarely out of the news, it would not seem unreasonable to wonder how long this current enthusiasm might last and indeed how far away fresh legislation in this space might be.

Conclusion

How then to react Alexa and her stable mates? Should those concerned with privacy baulk at the notion of a matte plastic corporate outpost assuming full-time living room residency? Do the Echo and products like it represent a genuine threat to both our privacy and our security, a HAL for every home? Or is the reality that our comfort level with more invasive technologies is now such that any concerns are attenuated by the obvious benefits and convenience these products provide? Is concern in this case trying to close the pod bay doors after the privacy horse has bolted? As with much in this space, perhaps the answer lies somewhere between the two.

It seems that while the Silicon Valley mantra “move fast and break things” continues to set the tone in this space, the most recent casualty must surely be domestic privacy. The next 12 months are likely to play host to a fascinating privacy debate, with the very real possibility of a conclusion that we are willing to accept Big Brother at home, provided that it delivers on its promise of convenience (and offers reasonable Lightning Deals on grocery products). In the meantime, “Alexa, tell me more about 1984.

Alex Ford-Cox is a trainee solicitor at Shoosmiths. He is based in the firm’s Birmingham office.