17.07.2019

Alexa – Big Brother in disguise?

Virtual assistants like Alexa and Siri can tell us the weather, play music or chat with us. This can be useful and fun. But the digital helpers also erode our privacy and provide companies with extensive data about our everyday lives, as a new study by technological impact researchers from the OeAW shows.

© Pixabay

"Alexa, switch the light on." While fun and convenient, digital assistants such as Apple's Siri or Amazon's Alexa mean the presence of data-gathering machines in our homes – despite their usefulness, they are an invasion of our privacy. They not only have access to our data and can thus record our habits, but they can also link these data with data from other providers to get an even more complete picture of our everyday lives and our preferences. This has been revealed by a new study – commissioned by the Chamber of Labor for Vienna – from the Institute of Technology Assessment of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (OeAW).

Study author Jaro Krieger-Lamina talks about the business potential of voice recognition and warns of the danger of almost complete surveillance.

What potential do digital assistants have and where do you see risks?

Jaro Krieger-Lamina: Digital assistants can, for example, positively change the lives of the elderly or people with disabilities, should they accept or even want their help. Their use simplifies participation in the digital world. But we need to be aware that we are providing a complete record of what is happening in our home, when talking to our family or friends, i.e., in our most intimate moments. Each individual must weigh the benefits and risks. At the level of society, however, the state has a responsibility to address the issue.

With digital assistants, we need to be aware that we are providing a complete record of what is happening in our most intimate moments.

What does it mean when we talk to computer programs as if they were actual conversation partners?

Krieger-Lamina: First of all, people get used to voice control and communication with machines. It's not just about the machines understanding us, it's about us understanding the machines. As communication with machines becomes more and more similar to that with people, the systems also become part of the family, we can perhaps identify with them, build a relationship, trust them and unconsciously make certain attributions, for example regarding their competence. We should also consider how this affects our ability to reflect, if we don't even question the answers or consider other options. It's a bit like that with people who blindly trusting navigation systems and end up driving down the stairs to the subway.

As communication with machines becomes more and more similar to that with people, the systems also become part of the family.

What role will Alexa, Siri etc. play in the future?

Krieger-Lamina: Many already dream of big business: "Conversational Commerce" is the buzzword here. Digital assistants could be pre-installed in many places in the future. There are already hotel rooms that are equipped with Alexa. When I log in, I can start shopping immediately, listen to my music and much more. In other places, such as in the car or in a driverless taxi, you could identify yourself (or be identified) using your voice. We need to think about what it would mean if the sound of our voice alone sufficed to connect all of our data with us.

As it were, Alexa turns into Big Brother ...

Krieger-Lamina: Digital assistants are at the interface of all our communications. They know who we write to or who we call, what we buy, where we have been, what interests us and how we feel about it all (the detection of emotions is also being worked on intensively). So, if I'm at home with a cold and Alexa is activated, she might suggest that I buy certain tissues, medicines, etc. Of course, the proposed brands are not randomly selected, it’s targeted advertising. As it were, they could become the "gatekeepers" of the Internet. Big companies like Amazon or Google see tremendous business potential here.