/ Technology

Take privacy seriously, but don’t silence Alexa

Voice assistants such as Amazon Echos can be a godsend for people with reduced mobility. Here’s why I think we should embrace their benefits.

When I put my back out recently I was laid up for a week and it was then I realised just what a godsend voice assistants are.

Being able to answer the door without having to shuffle there slowly and painfully, being able to switch lights on and off, turn the heating up and down, tell the TV what I wanted to watch, let my family keep an eye on me remotely: suddenly it all made sense.

We worry a lot about the privacy implications of voice assistants, but we should acknowledge the good things about them too.

It’s not only the futuristic fun of being able to summon up music or heating just with a shout.

Thoughtfully deployed, I’m convinced smart speakers are going to help more vulnerable people live independently for longer.

Masses of information

On privacy, it’s worth remembering that most of us are already signed up to the technology panopticon.

If you use a smartphone, order things from online retailers, chat on Facebook, post photos on Instagram or even just use email, you’ve already given those companies masses of information about yourself.

Your smartphone, which you use to do those tasks, knows far more about you than even your mother does. Voice assistants are just another way to interact with services you already use.

I tend to think of my relationship with technology companies as a partnership – an occasionally fractious one, to be sure, but one where I have agency: I’m not a hapless victim. I make choices about what I use and how I use it, aware that in return I get useful services.

Control your technology

Taking time to work out how you use technology means you can make informed choices.

You might not think being able to set a timer when your hands are covered in dough you’re kneading is enough reason to give room in your house to a smart assistant, and that’s a valid choice.

Ultimately, it’s up to all of us to be in control of our technology and not to let it control us.

Have you embraced a voice assistant in your home? Do you see any need for one? Are privacy concerns enough to put you off completely?

Do you use a voice assistant in your home?
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Comments

You highlight the advantages of the active speaker for some, and this is a good reason to buy one. It outweighs the possible intrusion of privacy that some of us worry about. For me it is just an expensive gimmick that I don’t need in my life, but it needs enough people to want one so that those who actually need one to survive can continue with this service. I do like to know what my household machinery is doing and that it can not be set by an accidental comment in the wrong direction. Like many other items I wouldn’t condemn it as a waste of money, but wouldn’t waste my money on it.

At the time of posting as shown by the poll, three out of four people do not have a personal voice assistant. It will interesting to see how this develops.

I know some people who have one and they use it to command radio stations and ask facile questions. It is for their amusement rather than practicality.

I agree that for people who have difficulties getting around they can be a boon. But they will never do the ironing which is my basic test of useful support.

It would be nice to have a house where everything was connected so we could remotely open and close the windows, lock the doors, run a bath, cook the dinner, and operate the vacuum cleaner, but quite a bit of physical effort is still required to fill and empty the washing machine, put the food away in the cupboards, and clean the stairs, the bath, the shower, the toilets, the floors, etc. I think we should plan to engage a human personal assistant for when the time comes, in return for accommodation and meals perhaps plus a fair income.

Hi Kate, sorry to hear you’ve been laid up for a bit.

I don’t currently have a voice assistant and I’m not planning to acquire one anytime soon.

In the absence of additional investment in “smart home products”, I doubt that a voice assistant would be able to provide most of the benefits that you’ve enjoyed with yours.

In addition, I think alternative devices can be chosen, to enable many or all of those benefits, but without the need to share any data with the cloud.

Problems that we all face, if sharing our data to the cloud, include trusting that (a) there will not be any conflicts of interest in the way our data is used by the organisations that we share it with and (b) there will not be any unauthorised access to our data.

Given those hazards, I am disinclined to share more data than is needed, for the any and all of the various benefits that I can get by being online.

Kate, I think my point is that I don’t think we stand to benefit by wantonly sharing data with the panoptican.

Posting here obviously does share some data in that direction, but I consider that worthwhile as a cost of involvement here.

As I do feel the need to use an Android phone, I am trying to mitigate Google’s data slurping by using Brave as my primary browser there and DuckDuckDo as its default search engine. I also use ProtonMail when I don’t want Google to have easy access to my emails. Also, given that Google will be getting some of my data, I still see that as no excuse for sharing data with others when there’s nothing in it for me.

One little considered fact is how much energy the cloud consumes, forecast to be 20% of global total in five years time.

What global total, Phil? Total of all energy produced, used by the cloud, used by all computers or what?

I do not have a smart home nor a voice assistant. My grown up children do but have turned their’s off for lack of use. I wonder how many others do that once the novelty has worn off?

I’m sure they have uses, and I do have some automation – a timer on my central heating for example. But I have not yearned for more. Perhaps, if I was given one and could trust all those who collect my information and spy on me I would use it, as I did when I was handed down my smartphone.

I was initially sceptical on smart speakers but have been won over lately. My parents have an Echo Dot connected to Sonos speakers in their living room and it’s handy to walk in and switch on the radio or play the exact song you want while doing other things. It’s also handy in the kitchen to quickly set a timer for cooking.

My brother also has one in his bedroom connected to a smart bulb – it’s great for dimming the lights for reading etc, acts as an alarm clock as well.

Yes, it’s all a bit gimmicky, but there are some nice little features that remove minor inconveniences. As John has mentioned above, it’ll be interesting to see fully connected homes in the future.

But there are some things that’ll never be fully automated of course – kettles, washing machines, dishwashers… it’s hard to see how there’ll ever not be a manual element to them.

My washing machine has wi-fi George.

If I was to connect it to Home Connect, I could apparently:
■ Select and start programmes.
■ Change programme settings.
■ Query the status of programmes.
■ Change appliance settings.
■ Switch off the appliance.

Kate – didn’t know the kettle was gone! Coincidentally my brother also briefly worked with them – I’ll ask if he knew much about that.

Alfa – when there’s a button that takes the load out and hangs it to dry I’ll be interested 😉

I could do with a smart washing machine. With my present machine, laundry detergent capsules or tablets often find their way into the door seal and some of the detergent remains there after the washing, rinsing and spinning cycles have ended, meaning that the machine has to go on again. On second thoughts, maybe smart designers is what is needed.

What we are prepared to accept can change, Kate. Years ago I used to make use of free WiFi, but I have avoided doing this for at least four years. One reason is because I learned of security concerns (probably from Which? Convo) and the other reason is that the I can use mobile data in far more locations.

I haven’t worked out how to use Siri to program my wife, yet, but once I do that’ll be the ironing automated.

What, exactly, is ironing anyway?

It’s what we do when it’s raining. It’s an ancient craft or art form handed down from mother to son intended to make complicated clothing look nice and smart.

I was ruminating the other day, while at the board, that since starting to iron my own clothes at about 17 years of age I have ironed over 20,000 shirts at a rate of about ten to the hour which means I have lost over 2,000 hours [well over two years] of my life in this curious occupation.

Unfortunately, I am pathologically conditioned to iron my shirts and other clothes and could not bear to go around in un-ironed kit. No non-iron shirt does what it says on the label I am afraid.

In a zero-carbon future we need wings and feathers. How do we kick-start the required evolution?

Kevin says:
17 February 2020

Interesting take on using voice assistants, but I echo the previous comments…

I would also say that just because people are becoming aware of the amount of data that’s harvested from our use of IT, the answer isn’t to give up, but to regulate these companies properly, and amend your devices so that they don’t spew a torrent of personal data to the cloud. I started putting my mobile on flight mode when I’m out, since plenty of companies providing WiFi will monitor your phone to the greatest extent legally possible, and sometimes beyond the law since ignorance now appears to be a valid defence if you’re a CEO or a business. This happens whether you’re using the WiFi or not.
Data aggregation is a huge issue, reducing your fingerprint across different devices and services is common sense if you care about privacy.

I won’t be getting a voice assistant any time soon. I think an object listening to every word you say being connected to the outside world and collecting data about you is rather sinister.

In China, they do everything with their smartphones, even donating to someone sat on the pavement. Everything they do is monitored and bad habits picked up by the authorities and addressed, maybe by re-education. Quite scary.

What amazes me is the accuracy of speech recognition. Remembering the early efforts at voice recognition in the 90s we have come a long way.

Irrespective of whether recent developments are considered toys or have no practical use, the technology will develop and hopefully potential security issues can be overcome. As Kate points out it’s possible that voice assistants could suddenly become very useful if you are incapacitated.

Each time we discuss voice assistants I summon Siri, ask a few questions and receive prompt and generally useful answers. I don’t want to do this in public because I preface my questions with ‘please’ and having been given a response, say ‘thank-you’, even though I know it’s only a flipping computer. 🙂

Talking with computers has always been a bit iffy:- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qDrDUmuUBTo

🙂 Yes, it can be more interesting when computers don’t just do as they are told.

I did pass the request (to open. the pod bay doors) on to Siri, who (or which) responded: “Oh, not again.”

Pilgrim says:
18 February 2020

Privacy aside (and I do think this is an issue), this is just another step towards turning humans into blobs of amorphous jelly, don’t trouble to walk around the store, have it delivered, don’t walk, ride, don’t cook, have it delivered, give the children a lift to and from school. Oh dear, I cannot imagine how I managed to put on so much weight, why doesn’t the NHS provide a better service, there should be some pills for it!

As for Amazon, wouldn’t it be good if they had paid the tax they have avoided to the British Exchequer, oh no, that doesn’t matter, I don’t have to move off my behind to buy anything, they will deliver in next to no time, the future doesn’t matter and ‘Which’ is affiliated to Amazon.

Or am I just suffering from a severe attack of jaundice?

I think Kate’s original point was that the widespread popularity of this technology makes it affordable and hence, also, easy to provide for anyone who is actually suffering from limited mobility.

It’s indisputable that technology can help those who have disabilities and the late Professor Stephen Hawking was a very good example. No doubt sales of voice assistants and other smart technology will help fund further development. It is fascinating to see what can be achieved and there is no doubt that some smart technology will join remote controls, WiFi routers, microwave ovens and sat-navs as everyday items. These were considered pointless by some when they were introduced.

My view is that voice assistants and smart devices are for the most part examples of products that contribute to our unsustainable modern lifestyle – products that we don’t need but marketing tells us that we do.

I wouldn’t dismiss voice assistants because I believe they might have potential benefits that have not yet been explored, and certainly think helping people with disabilities to live a better life with less effort is highly valuable. It saddens me, though, that the best uses that the developers can come up with – a bit like many smart phone apps – are so immature and superficial in comparison with the problems we face as a society. Perhaps they should be regarded as no more than a distraction from reality at this stage and we should hope for better things to come.

I cannot agree that smartphone apps are immature and stupid nowadays, John. No doubt some are, but some provide a focused way of accessing information when you are out and about.

Taking familiar examples, we have Google Maps (and others) to find our way around, various weather maps, a choice of web browsers and email, apps that will open Word and Excel documents, apps to take and view photos, a calendar to view your commitments and add new entries, iPlayer and Sounds (until recently it was iPlayer Radio), a Which? reviews app to look up product ratings and a Which? Magazine app, so that you can check something in a recent issue. In the same way that a computer needs software in addition to the operating system to be useful, a smartphone needs its apps. There are many very useful apps that cost nothing to download and use and if you don’t like them they are easy to remove.

You are right, Wavechange, but while I stand by my observation that many are immature, I stopped short of saying that apps are stupid. For those who use smart phones extensively I am sure all the apps you mentioned have their place – different ones for different experiences or activities. But there was a Which? Conversation [whose title I cannot recall] that seemed to be saying that a high proportion of apps that people have downloaded are hardly ever used, and that some of them are utterly facile.

I know people who use their phone for everything; things that would probably never occur to me. I use a diary and it doesn’t enter my head that a calendar or other app would be useful. I use maps if I don’t know how to get somewhere. I haven’t taken a photograph for over ten years. I can do all the other things using the full size computers in the comfort of our home.

I appreciate that many apps are free but there is the expense of being internet-enabled and in my situation I don’t see the need for that when I am out and about.

I think that voice assistants can really add an extra convenience to people’s lives. I know that they aren’t essential, but my friends who have them now wouldn’t be without them.

I haven’t got one myself yet but I know that I would love the convenience if I do choose to purchase one soon. The ability to change lighting, eg mood lighting so easily, change music according to which room you are in, and change your temperature settings – these are all things that just simply make our lives a lot easier and in my opinion that’s great – it’s pure convenience.

I agree that being able to control lifestyle features in the home is a great convenience, but buying a personal voice assistance on its own won’t do any of those things. Significant adaptations of the apparatus under control is required [or replacement with new fittings] and that can be very expensive.

We bought some LED lamps* for room centre ceiling fittings that have three levels of illumination, all selectable by flicking the wall switch, so the ‘mood’ can be altered in a couple of seconds. OK, not quite from the comfort of the sofa, but just how much convenience do we really need?

I think Wavechange’s point about sustainability is essential and I would hope Which? would be highly supportive of questioning new tech developments that lead to the waste of existing materials and the manufacture of new products that are of limited value [except as an indulgence].

*The lamps were Philips SceneSwitch 13.5W BC LED 3-Step Bulb, Frosted, @ £12 each. At the highest setting the level of lighting [1521 lumens] is really impressive and is the kind of LED centre lamp I have been waiting a long time for.

It is also a bit of exercise getting up and walking to interact with these things. Stops you being lazy.

We have a table lamp with mood colours and levels. It works with a remote control but only within about a metre, so we have to get up off the sofa to operate it. 🙄

I must admit table lamps and uplighters are probably better for adjusting the lighting in a room and creating the best ambience for the activities pursued. Good general lighting reflecting off the ceiling and task lighting should also form part of the mix. I think it will be a long time before ordinary homes have smart technology to enable that sort of flexibility through a voice control.

To pursue the sustainability issue, I wonder how long smart technology will continue to work for. We have a long-running Convo about smart TV apps stopping working, sometimes a couple of years after purchase. I wonder how many people think about this when they have smart heating controls fitted. Anyone with an expensive Bluetooth or WiFi speaker might not be very happy if it was not compatible with their new mobile.

Indeed. Just imagine what we’d have to do just now to upgrade a home full of smart tech, it all its devices were running on Windows 7 and needed upgrading to Windows 10.

Or conversely, one might buy new smart tech and then find its controlling app won’t work on one’s long serving smart mobile.

Re: John’s point, Apple’s Home kit app does provide that degree of flexibility and would work perfectly for us since we never use the ceiling lights. All our rooms are lit by table lamps (positioned anywhere but on a table…) based on the principle that the only part of a room I need to illuminate is the floor. The stairs have an LED strip system beneath the bannister rail, so the stairs themselves are brightly lit, but the light doesn’t hit the eyes directly.

I like uplighters and table lamps. I suppose centre lights are good for vacuum cleaning, but that can be done in daylight. I cannot understand why halogen lighting with bare halogen capsules became popular. Some might like having bright images imprinted on their retinas, but not me.

Alexa – Please can we have a Convo on room lighting?

I, like John, use table lamps and uplighters in many rooms, including bedrooms. They provide a pleasant environment, softer than ceiling lights; however I still retain these as when certain tasks are being carried out they are more appropriate. I am not averse to getting off the sofa to turn on the lights; I am averse to spending cash on what I regard as unnecessary equipment that rely on my smart phone to work. However, my table lamps in the living room to work from remote-controlled socket outlets……..

We don’t get enough exercise.

We must be careful when lighting stairs, particularly for people whose vision may not be great. Two key considerations are: avoid glare, so no bright light(s) in the line of sight, and to ensure the treads are clearly delineated so there is no confusion as to where to put your foot.

As others have said, I wonder how long the clever devices that we become dependent upon will last. And what happens when they stop working|? Hopefully, each has a manual option.

@wavechange this is a really valid point. I remember when iPhones changed their adaptor ports so you could no longer use old charger with the new apple devices. It’s the same thing I suppose, and although convenient at the time, having to update and change devices every year or two could get expensive and a bit of a pain.

Hi Grace – I hope you are settling in to the job.

With iPhones, iPads and iPods there have been only two types of charger connector (30 pin and Lightning), as far as I know. My recent iPhone uses the same charger and lead as the previous one, which was nearly six years old. Unfortunately, standardisation on USB-C chargers for phones will put an end to this.

In general, standardisation is very desirable but I don’t think that using USB-C chargers for phones makes sense because there is the possibility that a much higher power charger intended for a laptop can then be used to charge a phone. This can result in fires, for example if the charger lead is damaged.

I think we are going to need standards to ensure that smart devices have a decent working life before they will no longer talk to each other.

Hi @wavechange, it’s going well. Thank you 🙂

Yes you’re right, it was a while ago that this happened where iPhone ports were changed but it is still fresh in my mind for some reason!

Voice assistant? Just a name to lull you into a false sense of security. Remember the film, with James Fox and Dirk Bogarde, called “The Servant”?………

Incidentally, it was in B&W and cost £135 000 to make. “1917” cost $90 million. How times change.

The Panorama investigation into amazon on Monday night had one ex amazon employee – who seemingly had expertise and (ex)status – suggesting that when he wanted to have a private conversation that he would not want overheard and stored somewhere else, he would turn off Alexa. So perhaps there are times when we should all silence Alexa – if we have one.

We have an Alexa device at home but it’s very rare we use it for the voice functionality. I would have preferred a Google Nest Hub but sadly they aren’t compatible for anyone using a G Suite account, only free Gmail profiles get the full benefits.

I’ve not worried about privacy but it’s something we should think about although I’m not sure what conversations I have at home Amazon would find of interest!