Q&A: Alexa, Security, and You

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Data governance is on everyone's minds as news laws like GDPR take effect. But relatively new technologies like virtual assistants and the Internet of Things often still fly under the radar when it comes to data security. Speech Technology Magazine interviewed Greg Sparrow, senior vice president and general manager at CompliancePoint, about some of the security issues that surround these devices, and how people can protect themselves. 

Q: People are finally starting to wake up to the reality of data privacy on the web--namely that it doesn't really exist. But do they understand that the devices they're speaking to--like Echos--are part of the web? Or do they think it's somehow immune?

A: People are realizing the lack of transparency when it comes to many of the online social media platforms. The issues are primarily focused on data privacy and security, or the lack there of. People are aware that many of these smart devices are part of the this ecosystem but they are not aware of how much data is being collected by them. This also varies depending on the organization. Apple for example, tries hard to build in privacy to it products from the very beginning.

Q: Amazon has recently announced many new Alexa-enabled devices--including a microwave. How do these kinds of Internet of Things devices fit into the data picture?

A: Consumers should assume that data around your usage/habits with these devices is being collected and aggregated as part of larger data mining efforts. In general, most every event you preform while interacting with the device is logged. This means that a record is kept on what you’re doing with the device and when.

IOT devices also present a significant risk to the overall security environment. The devices are often so cheap that the manufacturer has no real monetary incentive to keep these devices updated from a security perspective.

Q: Amazon has also been rolling out more services aimed at kids. Does the company treat the data of children differently?

A: PHI information for Children comes with additional regulatory requirements like the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). Parental consent must be gained to collect any personal information on children. Privacy Polices must be included wherever data is collected. Marketers must have restrictions on when targeting young children.

Q: On Facebook, people have some control over how their data is used and shared. Is there any way to gain some control--or at least get a better picture--over how your Echo-data is being used?

A: Smart home devices are in the early stages of development and are not well integrated into the existing governance for privacy and data security for most organizations. Settings are not easily accessed on these systems and are often presented through a standalone website or application, making it difficult to manage these settings within the device.

Q: What advice do you have for anyone interacting with virtual assistants who are concerned about privacy?

A: I would say that individuals need to realize that these devices are always listening and are often times sending data to the cloud. The lack of transparency with the manufacturers of these devices means that we do not currently have a good understanding of what data is being sent to the cloud and how it is being used. 

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