As many of us settle into the new year with virtual assistants like the Amazon Echo, Google Home or Microsoft Cortana, it’s worth asking: how much personal information are they picking up? Also, where does that information go?
Consumer Watchdog, a Santa Monica-based nonprofit, has asked federal regulators to get out in front of a future where virtual assistants are listening to everything that goes on in your home, whether or not you use the “wake” words to launch them.
John Simpson of Consumer Watchdog has read the patent applications for these assistants, and he says those applications clearly indicate plans for broader, commercially focused household surveillance in the near future. "You know, keeping track of things like the number of times you flush the toilet, and when you go to bed," he says.
Simpson adds that kids using your devices are being tracked, too, regardless of whether you're in the room or giving permission. He asserts that such tracking is a violation of the Child Online Privacy Protection Act. "One of the patents proposes inferring whether a child is misbehaving," Simpson says. "I just think that has crossed a line and is far too invasive."
The Federal Trade Commission would only confirm that it had received a letter from Consumer Watchdog.
In response to Consumer Watchdog, Google issued a statement. "Consumer Watchdog's claims are unfounded," it reads. "All devices that come with the Google Assistant, including Google Home, are designed with user privacy in mind. For Google Home, we only store voice queries after a physical trigger or after recognizing a hot word trigger like 'OK Google' or 'Hey Google.'"