Digital assistants have been a part of daily life for millions of people since Apple acquired Siri in 2011 and integrated it into the iPhone 4s. Now, all the big players are in the game. Google, Amazon, and Facebook are competing to be the consumer’s choice for in-home digital help. While the commercials make them look convenient and nearly indispensable for modern life, the truth is users are inviting Big Tech surveillance into their most private moments. In this blog, we’ll make the argument that you should think twice before using one of these services.
The digital assistant marketplace is pretty crowded. Although many smaller companies and startups are coming up with solutions in the space, Apple’s Siri, the Amazon Echo, Google Home, and Facebook Portal dominate the sector. All of Big Tech wants to have an always-on, AI-enabled voice recorder in your home. The question consumer should be asking themselves is ‘Why?’
Well, first off, it’s a growing industry. The market size is over $3 billion this year, and analysts believe it could grow to be an over $40 billion industry by 2027. Obviously, this type of explosive growth is going to attract Big Tech investment.
But what other incentives are there? Well, we know that all of the major tech corporations have had issues with privacy violations in the past. Even Apple, which makes its money from hardware sales and has less reason to harvest mass amounts of user data, has had public privacy issues. To their credit, they at least seem to listen to privacy advocates and either change their policies or at least make them transparent. Unfortunately, you cannot say the same for the others in the space.
Amazon wants to sell more retail items and therefore wants as clear of a profile as possible on its users. That way, it can advertise to them more efficiently. Google and Facebook are even worse. Their entire business models revolve around offering free services to consumers. Nearly all of their revenue comes from personalized advertising. Thus, they have the biggest incentive to collect and analyze everything their customers do while using their products (and many times even after they’re finished using them!)
So knowing that these companies don’t take privacy seriously, why do they keep attracting new users? They make a compelling pitch about modern convenience. We live in a society where time is at a premium, and any new gadget that can save a few precious moments is the next best thing. Digital assistants use voice commands, so users don’t have to type out questions or commands. Instead of tapping through a few screens on your phone, you can simply say ‘Call Grandma, ’ and before you know it, you’re chatting with granny about all the birds she’s seen in the yard that week.
This kind of functionality is powerful. You can make and begin music playlists for the big dinner party, schedule appointments on your calendar, or even integrate digital assistants into your smart home. Then, adjusting the thermostat or checking on the oven timer is easier than ever before. But just stop and think for a moment. How much time are you actually saving? Tapping a few buttons is already much more convenient than any previous generation. Suppose your swing-dancing, bird aficionado grandma wanted to make a playlist for a party. In that case, she’d need to have the records she wanted to play at the ready and manually change them out continuously. Sitting at a computer and pulling out your phone, and tinkering for five minutes is already so much easier. In our opinion, the marginal utility you gain from digital assistants is not enough to overcome the privacy issues.
The main problem with these devices is that they never stop listening as long as they receive power. They may not be recording until they hear the ‘activation word’ (typically some version of ‘Hey!’), but they always listen for that phrase. So, that in of itself is more than a little creepy. But, it opens you up to opportunistic hackers. If a malicious agent wanted to, they could exploit a vulnerability in the device’s software and then have full access to your personal conversations. In the case of the Facebook Portal, which comes equipped standard with a high-definition camera, a bad actor could gain access to video of your home. The truth is, this technology isn’t foolproof either. The devices can mishear the activation word and begin recording conversations you’d prefer to remain private.
Even if a hacker doesn’t actively target you for surveillance, the open secret about digital assistants is that a representative from the manufacturer’s company could be listening to you. They all are known to employ people to do randomized quality assurance checks. In fact, some have heard about the users’ illicit activities! In some jurisdictions, recordings from digital assistants can be used against you in a court of law. Talk about an unwelcome snitch.
Overall, we believe that if you have any concerns about your privacy at all, don’t use a digital assistant. Do things the old-fashioned way (from 2010) and use your fingers. It may mean an extra 15 seconds multiple times throughout the day, but you get the peace of mind of knowing that your private moments aren’t compromised.
AXEL believes that privacy is a right and that tech companies shouldn’t infringe on it. This philosophy drives the development process of all of our software solutions, like AXEL Go. AXEL Go is a secure, private file storage and sharing platform. It gives you the power to choose precisely how private you want your files to be and never collects your personal information or mines your content. Try it now for free and receive a 14-day trial of our Premium service. All of the fantastic features are unlocked and you can see for yourself that tech products and privacy don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Take back control of your data with AXEL Go.
 Sneha Korad, Rachita Rake, Vineet Kumar, “Global Intelligent Virtual Assistant Market”, AlliedMarketResearch.com, 2020, www.alliedmarketresearch.com/intelligent-virtual-assistant-market
 Erica Vowles, Jeremy Story Carter, “Your Google Home or Fitbit could be used against you in court”, ABC.net.au, March 8, 2018, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-03-09/your-google-home-or-fit-bit-could-be-used-against-you-in-court/9510368