“Hey Siri, are you sharing my private data”: A commentary on the impact virtual personal assistants have on surveillance capitalism and user information consumption

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On: October 3, 2021
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For a digitally immersed society driven by technological developments and innovations, personal voice-controlled virtual assistants such as Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, or Apple Siri have become a crucial component to task completion, user interaction, and information consumption. Virtual personal assistants are interface paradigms that allow users to verbally communicate with their technical device, and “to access the internet through the mediation of huge corporations and their services” (Natale and Cooke 1001) to ask questions and get instant answers, or to schedule events in their calendars, turn on lights in their house, and to communicate with friends and family (Gruber), all at the push of one button – but at what price?

In “The society of the query and the Googlization of our lives” scholar Geert Lovink discusses the impact that search engines, such as Google, have had on user information consumption and information management as well as a phenomena Lovink refers to as ‘Googlization’, which addresses monopolies in data markets and surveillance capitalism. These are two key themes that are highly reflected in the usage and development of personal voice-controlled virtual assistants. 

Is your voice-controlled virtual personal assistant lying to you? 

Voice-controlled virtual personal assistants, such as Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, and Apple Siri, “are based on software processing voice inputs” (Natale and Cooke 1002) and use pre-programmed cues to complete tasks. For example, when you ask Siri a question the request will be sent to the Apple servers for translation, next, to complete the request and fulfill your search, Siri will utilize Google to answer your question (Evans, 2018). Through this process, these devices are highly dependent on the Google search algorithm, and Google as a search engine plays a key role in information formation and accessibility in the public sphere. However as addressed by Lovink the Google search engine algorithm is extremely skewed – and ranks results by popularity, not truth (Lovink 1). As a result, users of virtual personal assistants are receiving biased, if not false information, by using a search function that is designed to simplify information consumption. 

Lovink repeatedly critiques this ‘media ecology’, highlighting that the filtering of ‘useful’ information for individual consumption leads to a disrupted view of reality and amplifies the spread of disinformation (Lovink). This concern is further addressed by Simone Natale and Henry Cooke, who use voice assistants as a web interface to study and understand how the web is employed, accessed, and understood by users (Natale and Cooke). This study highlights the significant information bias web interfaces have, and similarly to Lovink concludes that search engines, do not only portray biased ranking in their search results, but also only cover a smaller index of information widely available on the web (Natale and Cooke 1003). Search engines are fostering the growth of miscommunication and the spread of disinformation. Both Lovink and Natale and Cooke argue that the internet is a large mass medium of information, that needs to be carefully utilized and should be tackled through browsing. 

As stated by Lovink “what we need instead of Google and Wikipedia is the “capacity to scrutinize and think critically”” (Lovink 4). Lovink discusses this about a statement made by acclaimed MIT professor and computer critic, Joseph Weizenbaum, and states that for users to successfully unfold the multitude that the web has to offer, next-generation search engines will require users to interact, decipher, and interpret – and not just accept the first thing we see. This places a larger focus on the user. In terms of voice-controlled virtual personal assistants, this means that users need to gain awareness and understanding of the mechanisms and functionalities of underlying search algorithms. This idea presents a large impact on the future of search engines. 

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The critical relationship between Google, your data, and virtual personal assistants

Search engines such as Google are usually a user’s first destination to ask questions, but that does not necessarily mean it is the best destination. Google is not interested in creating and administering an online archive in the first place […] the prime objective is to […] monitor user behavior to sell traffic data and profiles to interested third parties” (Lovink 5). As discussed by Lovink, it is not Google’s first priority to ensure access to accurate information, but rather to collect data. Voice-controlled personal assistants are the key new media object to access this data. 

At the 2017, WWDC Conference Apple CEO, Tim Cook, claimed that “Siri, now actively used on over half a billion devices, has developed a deep knowledge of music and understands your preferences and tastes’ ‘ (Maggio). Not only does this statement highlight the wide user reach that Siri has, but also alludes to a key drawback of virtual personal assistants, surveillance capitalism and privacy infringement. Virtual assistants have complete access to each user’s personal preferences, tastes, and information, through data traction. Companies such as Apple only highlight the assets that this data traction provides; improved and personalized user experience, when in reality “security and privacy of information are rapidly becoming the new economy and technology of control” (Lovink 2). Virtual assistants allow large corporations such as Apple, Google, and Amazon to marginalize their users’ data, and infringe on their privacy. A 2019 article by The Telegraph found that Amazon employees were listening to Amazon Alexa’s users’ audios, which had been recorded without consent (Cook). This is not a one-off scenario. Multiple media platforms have published articles revealing data breaches and privacy infringements resulting from the use of virtual personal assistants. Lovink addresses this issue of privacy and calls for users to question the actions of large corporations. This statement is further supported by a study conducted by scholars Bolton, Dargahi et al.. The study found that users rationalized their use of virtual assistants, by arguing that the companies in charge can be trusted with their data and that there is no way that their data would be publicly shared. Similarly to Lovink, the scholars called for users to start questioning the data traction and privacy infringement caused using both virtual assistants and search engines (Bolton et al. 14). 

Whilst such technological advancements serve to simplify users’ lives, they come with many limitations and dangers – primarily, for unsuspecting users. As expressed by Lovink’s article, and displayed here through voice-controlled virtual personal assistants, there is a need for active discourse to make users aware of the state of surveillance and information infringement they are under through data traction. Private users need to take back the control forced upon them by public domains – and the first step to achieving this is awareness.

Bibliography

Apple. YouTube, YouTube, 9 June 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oaqHdULqet0.

Bolton, Tom, et al. “On the Security and Privacy Challenges of Virtual Assistants.” Sensors, vol. 21, no. 7, 2021, p. 2312., https://doi.org/10.3390/s21072312.

Cook, James. “Amazon Employees Listen in to Thousands of Customer Alexa Recordings.” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group, 11 Apr. 2019, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/2019/04/11/amazon-employees-listen-thousands-customer-alexa-recordings/.

Evans, Jonny. “Is Your Business Ready for Apple’s Siri Voice Search?” Computerworld, Computerworld, 22 Mar. 2018, https://www.computerworld.com/article/3265071/is-your-business-ready-for-apple-s-siri-voice-search.html.

Gruber, Tom. “Siri – Intelligent UI: The Virtual Assistant Paradigm: AI Voice Assistant.” Tom Gruber, 5 Aug. 2021, https://tomgruber.org/innovation/virtual-assistant-paradigm.

Lovink, Geert. “The Society of the Query and the Googlization of Our Lives.” Eurozine, Eurozine, 5 Sept. 2008, https://www.eurozine.com/the-society-of-the-query-and-the-googlization-of-our-lives/.

Maggio, Edoardo. “Apple Says That 500 Million Customers Use Siri.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 24 Jan. 2018, https://www.businessinsider.com/apple-says-siri-has-500-million-users-2018-1?international=true&r=US&IR=T.

Natale, Simone, and Henry Cooke. “Browsing with Alexa: Interrogating the Impact of Voice Assistants as Web Interfaces.” Media, Culture & Society, vol. 43, no. 6, 2020, pp. 1000–1016., https://doi.org/10.1177/0163443720983295.

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