Does Smart Virtual Assistants Invade Our Privacy By Listening To Us?

Artificial Intelligence is gaining rapid growth and importance. Companies collect data from several sources and process them. Data obtained from survey forms, user information, consumer experience are integral in this process. Smart Virtual Assistants are playing a major role in assisting us.

Machine learning algorithms process the data from the past. It can be used to analyze and predict future statistics. Alexa is a home assistant developed using similar technologies. We install these devices right inside our bedrooms without having worries about privacy intrusions.

The dealers promise the consumers that these devices do not eavesdrop. But there have been rumours that these devices record every information. These include the private, intimate conversations which a family can have. Ruthy Hope Slatis, a temporary employee states one such experience.

Temps or Data Associates

Temps or Data Associates

She was a temporary employee for Amazon as a Data Associate. The data associates work for $12 an hour to transcribe the verbal commands to text. Amazon labelled the project as top-secret. Back then, Amazon launched the ‘Echo’, an artificially intelligent virtual assistant.

Their work was to listen to the audio and type each and every word on a laptop. The audio which they received was awkward and violent. They had personal and intimate conversations which people share inside their home.

The employees grew suspicious and knew something was wrong. They knew that people would not share information like this if they knew about monitoring. Ruthy quit her job as she could not handle it.

The number of smart home assistants has only increased in numbers ever since. Top tech companies have their own virtual assistants. Alexa, Microsoft Cortona, Apple’s Siri and Google Assistant are some of them.

Top tech companies have their own virtual assistants

Amazon has done the most sales among its competitors. More than 100 million devices with Alexa has been sold.

Florian from the University of Michigan says, with the increase in the sales of smart devices, we can only hope that the companies would not misuse sensitive information. The companies deny giving comments about the issue.

Apple’s strategy

Apple released its model iPhone 4s with Siri and it became a huge success. But apple felt that the processing power of Siri is still behind Alexa.

In order to improve the processing power of Siri, Apple had to process several audio files and store them as libraries.

Therefore, apple got a free supply of acquired audio files from its consumers. They were processed and stored as libraries. Apple has now started hiring speech scientists who can work on various languages and dialects. The temps (temporary employees) processed over 2,500 audio clips per day.

apple got a free supply of acquired audio files from its consumers

The audio clips can either be a sentence or huge conversations. They had to manually listen and type them in words. The employees quit their jobs after a few months due to the complexity. The smart devices are constantly listening. This raises the risk of privacy issues even more.

Big Tech Companies

Google Assistant is available on various platforms ranging from Android smart televisions to mobile phones. Owing to the increase in news reports, the companies have tweaked their algorithm. Temp workers promise that the clippings which they transcribe will have no intimate information.

The reports were able to prove that 10% of the audio clippings were recorded without approval from the user. Google opposes this fact. They say that the assistant starts to record audio even when the user accidentally says “Ok Google”.

Audio transcription

Facebook already has several accusations about violating users’ privacy. This increased, even more, when it introduced “Portal” which is again a smart device and videophone.

The Cambridge Analytica gave out an accusation. It details the data leak which occurs from the in-built microphone.

Rumours about Facebook

There was another popular rumour about Facebook. It was thought that the company suggested accurate ads by listening to the users secretly. When the congress questioned the CEO of Facebook, he named the entire accusation as “Conspiracy Theory”.

Facebook cannot deny that it used transcribed user audio to train its AI at the start. Facebook did not depend on the user audio alone. They hired contractors to log in to their Facebook account.

Facebook has a messaging tool named Messenger. Now, users can communicate by recording short audio messages. Facebook hired temporary workers to hear the audio and transcribe them.

Rumours about Facebook

The company completely shadowed the fact that it used contractors to do the transcriptions. The Contractors working for these firms did not know where the audio came from.

Due to the increase in news reports, companies have now stopped using humans for audio transcriptions. Now, Apple users now have an option to delete their Siri History. Amazon has also implemented similar measures to scramble media attention.


It is surprising to see how easy it is now to invade someone’s privacy. The world governments are now taking measures to eradicate this digital eavesdropping. Also, it is necessary for users to know about these scams.

Awareness to educate people to use smart devices with attention is mandatory. The number of contractors employed each year to transcribe audio clips has also reduced. They exclaim that they could not listen to the awkward audio clips anymore.

Disclaimer: This information is covered based on the latest research and development available. However, it may not fully reflect all current aspects of the subject matter.

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