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Digital assistants continue to flourish despite security risk

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New Delhi, Aug 7, 2019-

Amid allegations of invading our privacy, secretly recording our conversations and leaking our personal information, digital assistant-enabled devices are flourishing in India. Virtual assistants indeed, have made a mark and it appears that they are here to stay.

Digital assistants or virtual assistants, now voice-enabled, are computer programmes designed to assist users by answering questions and performing basic tasks like maintaining calendars, updating them about weather and reading out stories and recipes to them.

Earlier last week, a “State of Digital Lifestyles” report by US-based Cloud services provider Limelight Networks suggested that 68 per cent Indians are already smitten by digital assistants-enabled devices. Half of online consumers globally now use digital voice assistants.

The first modern digital virtual assistant installed on a smartphone was Siri, which was introduced on an iPhone 4S, in 2011.

Following Apple, other tech giants like Google, Microsoft and Amazon also launched their assistants — Google Assistant, Cortana and Alexa respectively — to power the new generation of smart devices.

According to market research firm Gartner, the market for conversational platforms — VAs and chatbots — includes over 1,000 vendors worldwide.

Today, for tasks as easy as switching on the lights, we rely and depend on our respective digital assistants — and the work is done, despite being aware of the security risks that they could put us in.

There are multiple triggers to such concerns, the latest one being a person in Germany using Amazon’s voice assistant who received 1,700 audio files from a person he never met.

A recent Forrester report titled “Secure The Rise Of Intelligent Agents” claims that Amazon’s virtual assistant Alexa does not currently authenticate or authorise individuals who access it, leaving a company’s Alexa skills unprotected from anyone who can remember another user’s commands.

In May, US Senators and a group of 19 consumer and public health advocates requested for a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigation on Amazon on charges of recording and saving conversations taking place around its smart speakers — Echo Dot Kids Edition smart speaker.

However, denying the accusations, Amazon said it does not collect personal information.

In July, a former Apple contractor confirmed that Siri interactions are indeed heard and reviewed by assigned workers to grade it for a variety of factors, like whether the request was intentional or a false alarm that accidentally triggered Siri, or if the response was helpful.

While Apple and Siri were being called out on accusations of privacy violations, Google has said it “has stopped listening and transcribing Google Assistant recordings in Europe after Germany’s data protection commissioner said the country was investigating reports that third-party contractors listened to users’ bedroom talks captured by Google’s AI-powered Assistant”.

There were reports that users’ conversations with Google Home speakers were being recorded and audio clips were being sent to sub-contractors who then “transcribed the audio files for subsequent use in improving Google’s speech recognition technology”.

The transcribers heard just everything — personal information, bedroom talks, domestic violence and what not about Google Assistant users in Belgium and the Netherlands.

On the global level, Apple has also said that it has suspended the programme that lets Siri listen to users’ recordings for “quality control”.

Nonetheless, as technology is advancing, it is a given that people would be adapting to newer ways of living.

With multi-lingual capabilities and such wide range of use cases, digital assistants are here to stay. By 2021, over 25 per cent cent of global workers would use a virtual employee assistant (VEA) on a daily basis, Gartner predicts.  (Agency)

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