Why Courts Are Targeting Smart Assistants Over Privacy

Tech companies may be recording you

Key Takeaways

  • Google is under fire for allegedly allowing its smart assistant to record conversations without users knowing. 
  • Experts say a lawsuit against Google is a sign of the growing scrutiny of big tech companies and their privacy practices. 
  • The best way to protect your data is to adjust the privacy setting on your device.
A family sitting at a kitchen table, with a smart speaker in the middle of the table.

Marko Gerber / Getty Images

Your smartphone may be listening to more than you know. 

Google is facing a lawsuit accusing the company of recording conversations of people who accidentally trigger its Voice Assistant on their phones. Experts say that smart assistants are a potential privacy nightmare. 

"Consider voice-activated assistants as members of your household, with one big difference—unlike other living members of your household, these assistants pay constant attention to you—and, they don’t forget," Pankaj Srivastava, a privacy expert and CEO of the management consultancy PracticalSpeak, said in an email interview. "What could go wrong?" 

Spy Phones?

A proposed class-action lawsuit claims that Google and parent Alphabet Inc. violated privacy laws. Google Assistant reacts to phrases such as "Hey Google" or "Okay Google." But the plaintiffs said Google had no right to use their conversations for targeted advertising when Google Assistant misperceived what they said as meaning to activate the software. 

Google argues that the plaintiffs failed to show they were harmed or that it broke any contractual guarantees. 

A young adult speaking to the voice assistant on their smartphone.

insta_photos / Getty Images

Srivastava doesn’t buy Google’s argument that the data collection is merely a mistake. 

"Being upfront about its data collection and use policies can help a company develop a reputation as a brand that is a 'good actor,'" he said. "However, companies need to embed privacy as part of their business model itself. The current focus for companies has been to gather as much data as they can so they can continue to improve the predictive power of their services through AI and deep learning."

Machine learning and AI are integral to the success of smart assistants, and they have a massive appetite for data, Srivastava said. 

"The more data they are fed, the better (and faster) they learn about our preferences, ensuring that companies like Google, Facebook, Apple can continue to tailor our purchases, news feeds, and even predict our preferences," he added.

It’s not only Google that could face legal action over smart assistants. The data collection and processing practices of Alexa and other smart assistants are sure to come under increased scrutiny after the judge’s ruling that the proposed class-action suit against Google can move forward,  Attila Tomaschek, a researcher at the website ProPrivacy, said in an email interview. 

"Whenever something occurs and puts smart assistants in the negative spotlight, be it legal action or a malfunction or mishandling of data or anything else, scrutiny increases from all angles—and not just for the device or manufacturer in question, but for the technology in general," he added.

"This is especially true for the major players like Google and Amazon, of course. When one gets put in a negative light, the other will certainly feel some of the heat as well."

How to Protect Your Privacy

You aren’t helpless to maintain privacy, experts say. Smart assistants come with a host of privacy settings that users can adjust to their personal preferences and desired level of confidentiality, Tomaschek said. 

"Being upfront about its data collection and use policies can help a company develop a reputation as a brand that is a 'good actor.'"

Users can typically set their devices not to save their voice recordings and can have their recordings deleted at any time. You also can disable the listening and recording functionality on your devices at any time, to ensure they aren’t listening or recording anything. 

One good way to protect your data is to set your devices only to listen when you actively push a specific button on the device, Tomaschek said. 

"While this is not quite as convenient as simply using a voice command to activate a device, but for users who value their privacy, it’s a small concession to make," he added.

To make it a little more convenient, users can opt for a device that allows them to activate the device using a remote control or their phone. 

"That way, they won’t need to physically go to the device to activate it, maintaining both privacy and convenience at the same time," Tomaschek said.

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