By Keisha McClellan
Although we are well into 2017, here’s a belated welcome to the Year of the Bot. Bots are revolutionizing the way we fuse technology with our everyday lives and posing challenges to our privacy.
Your actual phone or smart speaker may record your wish for a cheap plane ticket or an Uber ride, but it is the software application known as a bot that executes the command. At their core, bots engage us in an interaction where we can give a command and the device can execute the command. Some bots enable two-way conversations with us, others offer more simplistic engagement.
From celebrity chatbots like Kim Kardashian’s or Maroon 5’s, to bots that can help us with health queries or financial budgeting, bots are popping up in our lives in all kinds of nifty ways. But the bots associated with “smart speakers,” such as Amazon.com’s Alexa and Google Home, are particularly wrapping convenience and controversy all into one.
Why should we care? The benefits of gaining a virtual assistant in the devices we carry around or use at home come with a creepy caveat: bots can infringe on our privacy in ways we never imagined.
Take Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, or a Google Home smart speaker: these essentially are voice-controlled virtual assistants that can make life simpler, speedier and, perhaps, more enjoyable. You’re literally only a shout-across-the-room-away from ordering your favorite pizza.
That bots listen for our commands is innovative. Echo’s Alexa allows you to do many things including making a to-do list, providing a weather forecast, placing a toy order and streaming a podcast on voice command.
That the technology can also listen and record things you’re saying without you realizing it, is scary. It may even be incriminating.
An Arkansas prosecutor demanded Amazon turn over recorded data on an Echo in hopes that the speaker was recording at the time a man died in a friend’s hot tub. The device, at times, records the goings on in one’s home even when it hasn’t been directed to do so. In this case, the prosecutor hoped that the cloud recordings would shed light on how the man died. Until the owner granted consent for his Echo information to be turned over to prosecutors, Amazon refused to comply with requests for the recorded data citing the First Amendment as protecting the recordings.
The fact that these smart speakers may be listening and recording you without your knowledge, is disturbing enough. A reporter was startled when a private conversation between him and his wife was eerily interrupted when Echo’s Alexa “barged into the conversation with what sounded like a rebuke.”
But more troubling is what are companies doing with the data these smart speakers collect? Bots gather “massive amounts of data about us. And that raises a dark side of this technology: the privacy risks and possible misuse by technology companies,” says the Washington Post’s Vivek Wadhwa.
In all, Albert Gidari, director for privacy at Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society, says the “reality is that technology…kind of blurs law for privacy.”
Bots behaving badly can take many forms. For instance, Lin-Manuel Miranda of “Hamilton” fame was so alarmed about bots driving up the price of tickets to sports, music events and Broadway shows in some cases by more than 1,000 percent, that he penned an op-ed in the New York Times blasting brokers’ use of ticket bots.
President Obama and Congress were concerned enough about the potential for some bots to harm consumers that they passed the BOTS Act of 2016 to deter local ticket scalpers going hi-tech using bots.
Sure, bots can do bad things. But like two sides of every coin, bots have good capabilities too.
Siri helped a little boy save his mother’s life. When his mother fell unconscious, a 4-year old used his mother’s finger to open an iPhone and he used Siri to call 911 and reach an operator for help.
In this year of the bot, you may be itching to take the plunge and buy a new gadget that features a bot virtual assistant. While the numerous benefits are many, be sure to protect your privacy in the process. For starters, Nextadvisor.com’s Jocelyn Baird advises that you review the settings of your device’s microphone and even consider adding an “audible tone when it’s active, so you know when it’s recording.”
Keisha McClellan is a rising 2L law student at Chicago-Kent College of Law and a founding board member of Chicago-Kent’s Cyber Security and Data Privacy Society.