Do you start the day with “Alexa, what’s the weather today?”

Many of you may have a digital friend at home, an Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, Apple’s Siri or Microsoft Cortana (does anyone actually use this?). Has your digital friend ever interrupted your conversation or randomly spoken up despite not being hailed? The answer is likely to be yes, and your response has probably been just to dismiss the interruption as unwanted.

Just say the word(s)

A recent study by Imperial College London and Northeastern University examined how many times digital assistants activate without the wake-up word being used. The devices were subjected to 125 hours of Netflix content from numerous shows; the verbal content was analyzed with the closed caption text from the show to remove the instances when an actor may have used the actual wake-up word. The devices wrongly interpreted a word and activated up to 19 times per day.

The experiment was repeated 12 times with the same content and the result showed little to no consistency, less than 9% of all the “misheard” dialog that activated a device did so in 75% or more of the replication runs. Some devices activated on word patterns or specific letter sounds – for example, Alexa activated on words that contain a “k” and sound similar to Alexa, such as “exclamation” or “Kevin’s car”. Not being able to replicate the test result consistently suggests that there is a level of randomness to the unwanted activations. So, don’t take it personally the next time your digital assistant interrupts.

When the digital assistant is awoken and springs into life, the interaction is captured so it can be analyzed and the instruction, if there is one, is acted upon. Some of the systems retain a voice recording or a text transcript of the interaction either until you decide to delete it or the vendor's policy removes it, based on time or other criteria.

At the moment of an unexpected activation, or if you don’t want any other activation stored, then each assistant has the ability to delete the last interaction. For example, if during a TV show the device mistakenly awakens, a response from you of “Alexa – delete what I just said” will remove the last interaction. For the more privacy conscious then, an “Alexa – delete everything I said today” might be part of the good night routine.

RELATED READING: Privacy by Design: Can you create a safe smart home?

If you have introduced the digital assistant to additional digital friends, such as a home automation system, then the interaction is analyzed and the instruction or request is transferred to the third party. What data is being shared with the third party will depend on the functionality of the additional services or devices.

Your digital friend is listening constantly, is activated on demand or randomly and is potentially storing the interaction forever. And in some circumstances, maybe chatting with other digital friends to fulfill your requests. If only human friends were that attentive.

So, how does this relate to working from home?

Hopefully, you have adopted a routine and start work at a regular time and maybe even kick-off with a team call to sync with colleagues. I suspect that, like me, you then have a varied set of calls and video meetings throughout the day; some more sensitive than others. If you work in a collaborative open office space in normal circumstances, then you probably utilize a private space to participate in the more sensitive or confidential calls to avoid any inadvertent sharing of information.

But what if you’re working from home and know that the digital assistant is constantly listening, is extremely attentive, and is not an employee of the company bound by any confidentiality agreement? Then additional caution beyond what you practice in the office should be applied.

When conducting a sensitive call while working from home, switch off the digital assistant’s microphone and camera to avoid potentially sharing sensitive material. If you find it difficult to adopt an “as needed” approach to switching the digital friend off, I recommend giving your digital assistant the day off while you work.

The risk is not only from oversharing with your digital assistant’s vendor; there is also a risk that a bad actor could gain access to your account or, worse still, inflict a data breach on the vendor and have access to all previous interactions.

This could have been a short article, unplug the digital assistant, open the front door and throw it in the street, but I know my own paranoia will probably not resonate with that many of you.

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