By Bahar Ferguson

Perhaps you didn’t know that when you speak to someone in a call center, join a conference call, leave a voicemail or ask Alexa for the weather forecast, you are creating data. This compilation of data is one of the many reasons that both Google and Alexa have received accolades for the artificial intelligence voice assistants we frequently rely upon.{/mprestriction} It is a fantastic source of consumer information, habits, preferences, etc. The growing sources of data collection has resulted in an unlimited amount of data available and waiting to be mined. 

This evolution of data collection has been demonstrated on many platforms. One of these is Facebook, which boasts more than 1 billion users and has experienced a decent number of voice data chatbots. A quick Google search produces tutorials on making your own chatbot in a mere 10 minutes. More and more websites are utilizing chatbots — serving to more quickly answer consumer questions without even requiring human interaction. Existing artificial intelligence assistants by Amazon, Google and Apple are being built into home speakers, cars, phones, security systems, TVs and more, accelerating the path to widespread integration and subsequently, greater data collection. 

Not only will there be more information regarding our preferences available, the continued usage and collected data will allow for the continual refinement of the voice assistant and chatbot process, allowing artificial assistants to be capable of more complex and intelligent dialogues. Recently while attending the Super Bowl, I noticed the official Super Bowl LIII app had a built-in virtual assistant. My normal skepticism that chatbots are generally simply means to drive the conversation to an actual human representative were shut down when my decently complex question was immediately answered by the chatbot thoroughly and accurately.

As for voice assistants, when something is “always listening,” we open the door for social engineers to attack us with often-empty threats regarding what they allegedly heard on our devices. Given that just about any device can be hacked, it is easier to fall for the belief that these scammers may really have some sensitive data on us, reaching out, threatening to release the information unless they receive payment and causing us to question the legitimacy of their threat. We already constantly see this with scammers sending threatening emails claiming to have hacked into a user’s computer webcam and are holding compromising videos hostage. 

The FBI has stepped in due to the success and prevalence of this scam, informing users of the scam to delete and not pay the “confidentiality fee.” It seems only logical that threats based on alleged information overheard by these devices will follow in the future, if they aren’t already happening. It is important to remember with any threat sent via email or text to take a step back and breathe before reacting. When in doubt, you can seek counsel from your IT professional as they can help confirm the fraudulent nature of the sender and inform you of the latest trends in the area.

The blurry lines of the legal boundaries make the legal outlook difficult to determine, which is not surprising due to various state recording consent laws. Some states, including Utah, do not require two-party consent for recording conversations. A bill proposed in 2018 sought to change Utah to a two-party-recording-consent state was met with quick criticism and ultimately failed. Additionally, privacy rules of usage of data obtained by businesses from their customers or subscribers also vary dramatically. We may feel a sense of potential violation, but we very well may have already agreed to the recording and various uses for the obtained data in exchange for the convenience features we enjoy. After all, when it comes down to reading all the fine print when we purchased our Alexa, for example, few of us read closely enough (or at all) to understand what happens with the data Alexa obtains.

While it may be possible to easily delete your activity on certain platforms, skepticism will likely always remain on how much is really deleted or what other device may have been recording or keeping a record. 

Both Siri and Alexa chirp in due to something they heard, causing them to believe they were triggered. Why? Because they were listening and waiting. In 2018, Amazon blamed an Alexa command misinterpretation as the reason for reportedly secretly recording a conversation and sending that conversation to a random individual. 

While I personally am more concerned with the impact keeping Siri standing by has on my iPhone, it is a strange phenomenon to know your devices are always listening, always waiting to help, logging your questions and patterns and, depending on the company and usage agreement, mining this data to better understand you as a consumer and target more applicable messages your way.

While you can be concerned about the sheer volume of information you leave behind in your daily activities, you can also realize the business benefits of our ever-growing data mine. In the business world, an organization can reduce costs while increasing profitability and productivity. One frequent example is improving the efficiency and volume of sales. Utilizing and mining data can help calculate the possibility of which customers will purchase certain products. Therefore, businesses can save money by uncovering these correlations and subsequently targeting the customers most likely to purchase or be interested in the company’s product or service. Consumers may also save time by having more relative products, services or search results appearing more quickly as a result of utilizing the information on record for our habits, satisfying our need for fast results. 

In the end, we live in a world of instant gratification coupled with a strong dependence on technology. We continue to fuel the products and services, like virtual assistants, that can satisfy our needs quickly and with ease, even when the result means leaving large amounts of data behind.

Bahar Ferguson is president of Wasatch I.T., a Utah provider of managed IT services for small and medium-sized businesses.{mprestriction ids="1,3"}

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