By Ansley Skipper
With new advanced artificial intelligence technology like the ubiquitous “Alexa” now accessible to a wide array of people, Ansley Skipper examines the relationship between technology and privacy.
Christmas 2017 brought advanced, new technology such as the Amazon Echo and Google Home to homes around the world. These devices –– and even Siri on your iPhone –– are all artificial intelligence systems made accessible to everyday consumers like me and you. Yes, these devices do cool things like help you search the web and play music at the command of your voice, but that often comes at a cost: your privacy.
These new technologies are seen by some as simply new home appliances no different than a mixer or microwave –– technology being used to make their lives easier. Sadhika Ganguli (9) says, “Alexa is an incredibly useful smart home assistant. She allows you to save time by turning off your lights, playing music, and telling the weather, to give a few examples.” However, it’s not that simple. These devices collect copious amounts of data on users, and it’s still not certain how or why that data is used.
What sets artificial intelligence (AI) systems apart from your microwave is that they are “intelligent” –– they are constantly learning and improving. Amazon’s so-called “Alexa” is tasked with two objectives that work hand-in-hand. Alexa must first learn to recognize your voice when you say, “Hey Alexa” and then learn your behavioral patterns and preferences in order to complete the actions you ask of it –– such as finding the current temperature or playing your favorite song –– in the most efficient way possible. Thus, these AI technologies must be listening constantly to collect data in the form of actual voice recordings, despite the common misconception that these devices only begin listening when the user calls on them with the catchy “Hey Alexa” or any other key phrase that “wakes up” the device.
This alone causes concern for privacy hawks, but even more concerning is what can be done with this data. Despite advanced cybersecurity measures taken by Google and Amazon, it is always possible that these records might be “hacked” and used without the device user’s consent. Amazon and Google do use all of the data collected by their AI devices to help improve each of their AI systems as a whole. This data, like web search histories, can also be used for targeted advertising — another controversy in itself.
The peak of privacy concerns for many 4th Amendment advocates is the possibility of government access to voice recording data collected by AI devices. There will always be conspiracy theories about the government “listening in” on citizens using their personal devices, but the AI devices and their data collection processes may be concrete justification that these concerns are not as radical and unfounded as once was believed. In a 2017 Bentonville, Arkansas murder case, prosecutors subpoenaed Amazon for the voice recording data collected by the defendant’s Amazon Echo. Amazon turned over the data, but the charges were later dropped for reasons unrelated to the technology.
On the government’s use of this data, Sophie Droke (9) says, “I believe that if you’re doing something wrong, the government has the right to catch you. If you’re doing nothing wrong, then you have nothing to fear.”
But even still, as information emerges about social media websites and their use of personal data, there is cause for concern about what information we divulge on the internet, how it is used, and whether the costs outweigh the benefits. We all want to be connected, and the internet is today’s most used tool for doing so. However, the question to ask ourselves is whether connection on social media or the convenience of AI is worth the possible consequences. Certainly, most people don’t “need” privacy in that they are doing something that they need to hide, but as Americans, we are entitled to privacy based on our natural right to be secure in our property. We can choose to forfeit it, but this should not be done without a proper understanding of the consequences.
In AI technology, some might believe Americans have willingly purchased and brought into their homes the equivalent of “bugs” or listening devices that could be taken and used against them. Others may see this technology as simply the new Google search history on a computer. Regardless, those of us living in the twenty-first century will be the ones to grapple with and decide how our rights, privileges, and ethics will apply to a world of advanced technology.