Is Your Intelligent Personal Assistant Actually a Security Risk?

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The rise of digital assistants such as Cortana and Siri have brought a new level of convenience to many smartphone users. All you need to do is speak a command and these assistants will respond with the appropriate answers. While there are still limitations to it today, as artificial intelligence continues to improve so too will these personal assistants. Soon virtually every aspect of your life, from your home to your calendar, will be at your control of your fingertips and voice. As more people come to rely on their digital assistants, the big question now is how secure are they?
The Rise of Digital Assistants
When digital assistants first came onto the scene, many viewed the technology with skepticism. However, with advancements in its learning capabilities, many people quickly adopted it to easily schedule meetings, plan events, check the weather, find directions and answer basic questions. Today, the market has grown with Amazon offering a standalone assistant called the Echo and Facebook introducing their own digital assistant called M. 
While you might enjoy digital assistants for their convenience, businesses like Microsoft and Apple like them because they collect important data, most notably your location. With just that, these assistants can provide shopping lists when you’re at a particular store or even remember where you parked! What’s more, artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms allow these assistants to create predictive profiles based on your habits and preferences. That’s a lot of data for companies to work with and it allows them to serve you with ads and other marketing materials at just the right time.
Security Issues
Of course with all of this personal information, comes security vulnerabilities. In fact, companies like IBM have banned the use of Siri due to security risks. Why? According to the iPhone Software License Agreement, the voice commands given to Siri are sent to Apple for translation into text and stored for two years. This makes it possible for potential hackers to intercept those commands. More alarming, however, is the fact that much of the audio is sent off to third party companies for analysis. 
This isn’t just an Apple issue, as Google keeps an archive of commands. Even your TV might be recording your conversation. Samsung’s Smart TVs kicked off a privacy storm when they shared their customers’ commands with a third party. Of course, most companies are smart enough to cover their bases in their (extremely lengthy) terms and conditions, which everyone has to agree with before using Siri or Google Now. Although there’s no suggestion messages contain sensitive information such as credit card numbers or passwords, it’s important to be careful when sharing any private information. 
The biggest privacy issue for many cybersecurity experts is the fact these devices are always listening. While technically it should only record and pay attention when a person speaks a “wake up” command, since it is always on, there’s potential that these devices could become very invasive as it listens and learns from conversations around it. 
For example, a Smart TV might overhear a conversation about laundry and serve up commercials that line up with this. It could be used by criminals and law enforcement personnel alike to eavesdrop in on conversations. While they have not been used yet in a court of law, it could also be possible for lawyers or police to subpoena this information.
Yet criminals might not even have to hack into your device to get sensitive information. If you have one of these digital assistants enabled on your lock screen, all they need is an unattended phone. From there, they can access data such as appointments and email address. They can even perform tasks like placing phone calls and posting to your social network. For the Amazon Echo, it’s even more worrisome as the device cannot tell the difference between voices. This means anyone who has access to your home has access to every account linked to Alexa.
How to Protect Yourself
If privacy is a major concern for you, then the best thing you can do is avoid using these digital assistants. You can disable these by turning it off in your settings. 
On iOS, you can manage data collections by changing your privacy settings. For Google Now, you can change preferences through the menu’s customization and turning off its background data. You should also disable the use of these digital assistants from your lock screen. For Amazon Echo, if you already have one, there isn’t too much you can do aside from unplugging the device when you do not want to use it. 
As for your recordings, you can always go in and delete them, though most programs warn you that the effectiveness of the app may decrease. Perhaps the easiest way to keep your information secure is to refrain from repeating confidential information in front of these devices.
You’ll also want to remove any chances of outside intrusion into your smartphone. This means using a security suite on your smartphone as well as utilizing a VPN (Secure Thoughts has some recommendations) to keep sniffer programs out. You don’t want hackers to have access to the information your virtual assistants are sending and receiving online.
Unfortunately, there is not much consumers can do on their end besides shutting off a few features on their phone. With that said, experts in speech recognition research believe these companies can do more to reduce potential risk to consumers by reducing the amount of information sent to the servers. While this would put more burden the devices’ processor and battery, it would not affect the quality of speech recognition. Other options include disassociating recordings from other identifiable data such as phone numbers or IDs.

Does Convenience Outweigh Privacy?
For some, the convenience of these devices outweighs the potential downsides. It provides quick and easy access to music, movies, appointments, bank accounts and more. With that said, most agree the inherent insecurity of the system is something to keep in mind. It’s important to always keep an eye on passwords, security camera settings and any network connected devices and software. With that said, many people have embraced the Internet of Things with open arms despite the decrease in privacy. 
Others, however, are a bit more hesitant considering the possible implications of a digital assistant that constantly listens to conversations. For those working with confidential information, apps like these signify a serious information leak.
Whether you embrace or shun this technology, it’s clear it will continue to grow and integrate into people’s daily lives on a much deeper level in the near future. As with any new technology, it takes some time to perfect the platform. For digital assistants, companies will need to walk the fine line between convenience and security in order to convince skeptics that it will make their lives easier with little impact on their personal security. Until then, it’s up to you to decide where you draw the line between convenience and privacy.
What are your thoughts on the privacy issues surrounding digital assistants? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

About the Author: 

Caroline is a freelance technology writer. As eager as she is to adopt new platforms and tech, she’s always cautious about security concerns and protecting her privacy as much as possible.  

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