Digital Assistants

As we close out the year and enjoy the new technology from the holiday season, one piece of technology stands out as a forerunner.  It is something that we’ve dreamed and written about to the point it is a staple in science fiction. An artificial intelligence that anticipates and responds to a person’s desires and questions. This is the new technology, the “digital assistant,” such as Alexa, Siri, Cortana, and Google Home. These digital assistants manage to carry on conversations and answer questions.  How can these digital assistants think? How can they change and learn how to respond properly? Does the way these digital assistants work put data at risk?

How do digital assistants work?

Much like wearable technology, the digital assistant relies on “chatter” between itself and another computer hooked up through the internet.  However, the chatter tends to be slightly more reliant. Digital assistants, while they may have a few pre-programmed responses, are mostly reliant upon internet access to perform their duties. Alexa cannot work without WiFi, and Siri cannot work without a decent connection to data. When a person asks a digital assistant a question, the question is essentially pushed from the receiving device to the Cloud where it is answered, or some of the instructions are put out for the phone to follow. However, this may also entail, akin to a search history, a sort of assistant database where a person’s recorded voice may be kept, and in the case of the Amazon Echo at least, a user’s feedback on how Alexa did her job to allow it to grow and become more efficient, learning slang, or picking up on verbal tricks that are more similar towards human activities.

What does this mean for security?

In the realm of security, the first implication some of these digital assistants may have is with Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule (“COPPA”) due to the potential risk that children may be recorded and their data may be improperly collected.  As for the adult, it should be noted that digital assistants rely heavily on the Cloud like most Apps.  As such, the risk of the Cloud being hacked still exists, and the queries could be found and recovered.  In the case of Amazon Echo, all the queries are saved (as well as purchase information), although, not necessarily all of the audio files are handled this way.  Amazon Echo listens for an awakening word (e.g., “Alexa”) to start the recording, and streams the query to the Cloud thereafter.  Indeed, some of this information, since it’s stored in the Cloud has already been subject to requests from prosecutors who believe the recorded information could help with criminal cases.

Ultimately, as with any other electronic device, such as wearables and smart devices within the Internet of Things, reliance on technology puts confidential data at danger in the event of a major hack, and by attempts to break into an account.  However, keep in mind that encryption, firewall, intrusion detection system, multi-factor authentication, and a strong password can decrease the risks.

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