Experts warn consumers on smart speaker devices into our own homes

Smart devices capable of connecting to the internet are increasingly a part of our everyday lives, thanks to the convenience, efficiency and sheer hi-tech functionality they bring to our lives.

But tech leader, David Vaile, has warned consumers to think carefully before introducing the gadgets into our own homes.

In a recent interview with University of New South Wales (UNSW) Sydney’s Newsroom website, Vaile, who is Stream Lead for Data Protection and Surveillance, Allens Hub for Technology, Law & Innovation at UNSW Law warned that Alexa, for example, is listened to routinely by large numbers of people within Amazon and by contractors beyond the company walls.

“These ‘listeners’ aren’t just in the US as you might expect, but are also based in countries including Costa Rica, India, Romania, and possibly others. So, thousands of people around the world – both those directly employed by Amazon and subcontractors – are listening to our conversations,” Vaile says.

The reasoning behind the surveillance, Vaile says, lies within Amazon’s claim to drive improvements in its services. But this does mean that teams of “listeners” transcribe and annotate voice recordings, which are then put back into Amazon’s algorithms.

Fears are also growing that the process may undermine evolving perspectives on the importance of transparency in data use, and being honest to consumers regarding how their personal and private messages are being handled.

In Vaile’s opinion, the contract that invites users to click “OK” to indicate an understanding of the terms and conditions relating to the service, affords “minimal transparency”.

“Often there appears to be little point in reading these terms, because companies frequently leave out the most significant things – the specific details that might help you understand what it means in reality.

“For example, Amazon does mention that your recordings may be used for quality control and recognition-improvement purposes. But it doesn’t say it has thousands of people around the world listening to you, transcribing, and passing your information between their teams when they need help, or maybe just for entertainment.”

Details on how long the recordings are held for, and whether or not the information can be deleted, are similarly thin on the ground, leaving Vaile unsure as to what happens with the data. This is, Vaile explains, problematic given the lengths the tech giant goes to, to reassure users that data is handled ethically and in line with evolving data laws.

There is also concern, particularly in the US and Australia, that users are unable to do anything about data that is sent from Amazon to the US government

“In the US, there’s a range of mechanisms through which the government can get access to the information held in the cloud there. And there are ‘National Security Letters’ and other restraints which can gag Amazon, preventing it from telling people why the government may require access,” Vaile says.

Ultimately, Vaile advises caution regarding what we say to our smart speakers, and urges consumers to understand what’s actually going on with the speakers’ functionality. It may lead you to reflect on whether you really want Alexa to become part of your daily home life.

“Think about teams of thousands of people around the world listening in, without notice, and making transcripts and analysing the characteristics in your speech, such as your accent. It may not happen often, but it may end up being used against you, or perhaps those in your community,” Vaile says.

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