Listening in on private conversations

The concept of privacy in your own home is fundamentally changing with the advent of devices that are always listening in on every conversation you have.

The promise is a digital assistant that always listens, ready to obey your tiniest request. The flip-side is an electronic device that constantly records sound, and via the Internet propagates snippets of recorded sound to servers far away.

There are several big players developing digital assistants. Most recently, Amazon released the Echo dot, which is a "little brother" to the Echo. On the market is also Google Now, Microsoft's Cortana and Apple's Siri.

The fact that Amazon is in business as a middle man that is ready to sell you (more or less) everything that you may ever think of buying, should make it obvious why they have created their voice controlled personal assistant. Google has a similar motive driven by their business model, which is to show you "targeted ads". Both these companies compile a profile from the data they gather about you, and share this with their "partners", in order to monetise and turn a profit from your actions.

What Microsoft and Apple want to achieve commercially from their free services are less clear. Though, we may safely assume that they both want you to be compelled by the quality of their digital assistant to purchase more of their paid products.

One current worry is the possibility of others taking control of your digital assistant, which is possible as they all have a simple activation phrase, like "Hey Alexa", "Ok Google", and "Hey Siri". This is security on the level of not having a passcode on your phone, and I'm sure that the security related to voice activation will be significantly improved in the near future.

As a user you may worry what happens to the sound data that is transferred to remote servers for processing. The argument you had with your spouse, and the yelling between your kids, may have (accidentally?) been recorded and transmitted over the wire, where it likely will be stored for a long time.

There may be serious legal implications of having stored recordings from inside a private property. Can the recordings be used as evidence in a trial? If so, we need clear guidelines for what crimes give the public permission to listen in on your private conversations. There is legal precedence related to wire-tapping of phone calls, and placing recording devices on private property, for criminal investigation purposes. But, how will this extend to the situation where voluntary sound recording is ubiquitous?

An omnipresent digital assistant listening for our commands is the first glimpse into the future where artificial intelligence is a natural part of our lives. Soon we will have digital assistants that "can see" (i.e., constantly records a video signal that is transmitted to servers far away), and have a physical appearance, like the robot butler in the classical 1937 Donald Duck film Modern Inventions.