Germany Debates Bringing Voice Assistant Data to Courtrooms
The interior ministry is about to endorse a proposal to allow information gathered by voice assistants on smart devices to be used by criminal investigators, according to a report from the German RND news service. The decision is fueling a renewed debate over digital privacy by German regulators, as the ministry of justice is cautioning that there must be limits to how investigators collect data in order to protect the privacy of citizens.
The question of how much information Google Home, Siri, Alexa, and other voice assistants are collecting is one reason for the debate. While the devices only respond once you use their name, accidental recordings do happen, and concerns over passive recording by the devices are making some users wary.
Even if the devices only collect information when prompted deliberately, the amount of data that could entail is enormous. Access to those recordings could reveal when someone is home, what they are interested in, and any plans they are making. That’s not to say there aren’t technical limitations, such as when an attempt by U.S. courts to decipher background noise failed from a recording failed.
Google, Amazon, and other voice assistant developers are well aware that people are concerned about privacy. A Microsoft study last year found 41 percent of voice assistant users are concerned about their privacy due to passive listening by their devices. And anti-passive listening devices like Project Alias and the Mycroft Kickstarter are attracting interest
To address these concerns, Amazon last week introduced a command for Alexa that will delete everything said in a day and is planning to make more specific deletion commands available soon. At the same time, there’s no way to disable the recording storage, or even set up automatic deletion but it is a start for the company to address consumer’s privacy concerns.
Digital surveillance is an ongoing issue in Germany. Government ministries are arguing over whether bugging smart devices, even smart cars, is appropriate. But, Germany isn’t the only country trying to navigate the fraught debate between using voice assistant data and protecting user privacy. In the U.S. California’s State Assembly recently voted to require passive listening device makers to get consent before recording voices, something other states are considering as well. Meanwhile, Amazon fought a court order to hand over recordings from an Echo device in an Arkansas murder case, only acquiescing after the defendant gave his consent.