Technology enthusiasts probably view the holy grail of smart home technology to be an fully-fledged intelligent digital assistant: the assistant that you don’t have to ask to turn on your lights because it already knows to turn on the lights for you. Those same enthusiasts probably view products like the Amazon Alexa, the Google Home, and similar products as an exciting early foray into that technology, even if they are ultimately rather limited right now. Regardless of how useful you find the current crop of digital assistants, the fact remains that they present a rather attractive price for what is offered.
These devices, however, have rather interesting security and privacy concerns. Not only do the devices have the usual privacy concerns associated with always-connected devices, but they introduce a new crop of issues for the privacy-minded consumer since the companies acquiring all of the data mined by these devices have motives beyond the simple offering of the products themselves. Some reports from this week discuss these patents as though some grand conspiracy has been revealed, but there is nothing sinister or illegal here. Even if there isn’t anything below-board here, consumers shouldn’t forget that both Amazon and Google have interests in tying customers to their ecosystem, and both companies have a strong desire to more fine-tune their marketing efforts towards the customer using the device.
With that in mind, it’s probably no surprise that both Google and Amazon have filed for patents in which their digital assistants are always listening and parsing the speech that they hear in order to more accurately target advertisements to the user. Those patent applications can be viewed here (Amazon) and here (google). In short, the devices are only partly about offering a digital assistant. They’re also about gaining even more information regarding the customer in order to mine that data for marketing ideas. Having said that, it’s hard to feign surprise at that particular method of generating revenue from the devices.
In light of all of this, it’s important to note that the fact that a company has applied for a patent doesn’t mean that the patent will be granted or that the company will implement the technology, but it does give insight into a company’s long-term plans.
It’s an interesting choice for the consumer. On the one hand, manufacturers are currently offering superior devices and experiences for reasonable prices in exchange for the customer sacrificing some degree of privacy. To the extent that the companies are open about what is being traded (and thus far they seem to have been), it’s hardly “spying,” malicious, or illegal. It does, however, leave a particular taste in one’s mouth.
Alternatively, consumers can opt out of these devices from Amazon and Google in favor of open-source but admittedly less feature-rich alternatives that aren’t interested in mining your data for marketing purposes. Products such as Mycroft allow the user to install the digital assistant software on a device of their choice, and even allow the user to run the software without requiring the device to be connected to the internet. The product isn’t, however, as intuitive or as easy to use. Even if you use Mycroft’s own “Mark 1” device, it’s substantially more expensive than an Amazon Alexa or a Google Home, and, while it’s more intuitive than trying to install the software yourself on a Raspberry Pi, it’s still not comparable to the out-of-the-box experience offered by Google and Amazon.