Update on June 6, 2017: Apple has introduced its own A.I. assistant device, the HomePod. Notably, the company says the device will only collect data after the wake command. Also, the data will be encrypted when sent to Apple’s servers. However, privacy questions remain, as with other A.I. assistants.
Artificial intelligence assistants, such as Amazon’s Echo or Google’s Home devices (or Apple’s Siri or Microsoft’s Cortana services) have been proliferating, and they can gather a lot of personal information on the individuals or families who use them. A.I. assistants are part of the “Internet of Things,” a computerized network of physical objects. In IoT, sensors and data-storage devices embedded in objects interact with Web services.
I’ve discussed the privacy issues associated with IoT generally (relatedly, the Government Accountability Office recently released a report on the privacy and security problems that can arise in IoT devices), but I want to look closer at the questions raised by A.I. assistants. The personal data retained or transmitted on these A.I. services and devices could include email, photos, sensitive medical or other information, financial data, and more.
And law enforcement officials could access this personal data. Earlier this year, there was a controversy concerning the data possibly collected by an Amazon Echo. The Washington Post explained, “The Echo is equipped with seven microphones and responds to a ‘wake word,’ most commonly ‘Alexa.’ When it detects the wake word, it begins streaming audio to the cloud, including a fraction of a second of audio before the wake word, according to the Amazon website. A recording and transcription of the audio is logged and stored in the Amazon Alexa app and must be manually deleted later.” Read more »