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Personal Security in the Age of Digital Assistants
Maria Ramos   Oct 10, 2016   Ethical Technology  

Fully-realized artificial intelligence has long been the holy grail for daydreamers and forward-thinking inventors alike. We aren’t quite there yet, but modern virtual assistants are making the case that we aren’t so very far off. Whether it’s a feature integrated into your smartphone or a standalone assistant like the Amazon Echo, digital assistants have shown great strides in the ability to recognize and parse your spoken commands and respond to them appropriately.

This, combined with advances in home automation and ever-improving artificial intelligence software, has put virtually your entire home at the control of your fingertips - and your voice. Unfortunately, this new tech has also raised a number of thorny issues regarding personal privacy and security. As we increasingly accept digital assistants into our private lives, can we trust them to maintain that privacy?

The Rise of the Digital Assistant

Chances are, you're probably already on a first-name basis with one or more of the four main players among digital assistants - Siri, Cortana, Alexa and the still-nameless Google Now. Though these digital stand-ins were once met with skepticism as a passing novelty, they've quickly grown to take on many of the same tasks as the personal assistants of yore - scheduling meetings and events, checking the weather, providing directions, calculating commute times and answering basic questions via internet search query. And, like their in-person counterparts, digital assistants are also beginning to “learn.”

Personalizing the Personal Assistant

A good personal assistant knows their boss. They learn their preferences, they remember personal details and they can use past behaviors to anticipate future needs. It's not an easy gig even for a human, but it's far more difficult for a digital surrogate. That, however, is changing as artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms become increasingly sophisticated. We generate a tremendous amount of data with our actions, our purchases, our internet searches and our day-to-day behaviors, and our “assistants” have become very good at collecting and analyzing that flow of information to make connections and build useful predictive profiles. This process is accelerated by the use of voice recognition, which offers a far more natural method of interaction than a mouse and keyboard or touchscreen interface.


A Smarter, Less Private Home

One of the most powerful aspects of the digital assistant is the ability to connect to the larger Internet of Things, including the many devices that comprise the modern smart home. Like digital assistants, many smart TVs, thermostats, smart meters and other home automation devices are also busy collecting and analyzing data. Everything from your energy usage to your television viewing habits to your private conversations is stored, parsed and used in a multitude of ways to improve functionality and create a smarter, more responsive user experience. Unfortunately, this insatiable desire for more personal data also raises concerns about just how that data is stored, used and secured.

The Price of Convenience

In a world where most of the devices around us endeavor to record, analyze and learn from our every action, the price we pay for convenience and “personalized” features is a loss of personal privacy as it was once defined. “Smart” technology, be it in the form of a natural language processing computer interface or a thermostat, is open to vulnerabilities at each new point of connection. Unsecured, default settings can expose your digital life to unwanted scrutiny, or even put your real life at risk. As such, it’s important to keep an eye on passwords, security camera settings, and any network connected device or software.

However, for those working on the edges of the chatbot frontier, the unsecured default settings that come with new virtual assistants oftentimes are not perceived as a problem. Malwarebytes CEO Marin Kleczynski has spoken on the issue saying that Google's "we're storing your data unless you tell us not to" arrangement is further evidence that there's nothing especially risky about these services - if you choose to engage, you should be aware of what you’re giving up.

As we acclimate to new technologies and cede more control over our personal lives and our data, that progress needs to come with assurances that our sensitive information will be respected and remain protected. One potential solution is the implementation of fully-realized local AI, which would reduce the need to transfer data over the Internet by handling most tasks within the device itself.

The Internet of Things has the power to improve our lives in many ways, and digital assistants appear poised to play a central role. But as the technology continues to mature, the industry is still left grappling with the basic issue of integrating itself into our personal lives without exposing them for all to see. In the meantime, consumers are left to decide for themselves where they draw the line between convenience and privacy.

Maria Ramos is a writer interested in comic books, cycling, and horror films. Her hobbies include cooking, doodling, and finding local shops around the city. She currently lives in Chicago with her two pet turtles, Franklin and Roy. You can follow her on Twitter @MariaRamos1889.

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