Pew ATP 2

Smart Speaker Owners Are Uncertain If Personalization is Worth Sharing Data: Survey

More than half of smart speaker owners don’t want their voice assistant’s personalization ability to improve, according to the new American Trends Panel survey carried out by the Pew Research Center. Smart speaker owners are wary about sharing the personal information needed for the AI to learn and adapt to their preferences and how that data might be used.

Personalization is Too Personal

According to the new survey, a full 25% of Americans own a smart speaker. Younger people and those with higher incomes are more likely to own a smart speaker, but men and women are almost exactly equally likely to have one at home. Pew has been carrying out the ATP survey for four years. This year, the ATP gathered data from around 4,300 people in the U.S. in June. Of those owners, 54% are concerned about how much data their smart speaker is collecting, equivalent to 13% of adults in the country.

Voice assistants are designed to gather information about their users and adjust how they operate to better carry out their tasks. The major developers in the space consistently make personalization a centerpiece of their products. Amazon recently opened up the voice profile feature on Alexa to other developers. Applying this feature makes it so users don’t have to switch between Alexa accounts for third-party skills to recognize who is speaking and access their preferences.

Google has been creating ways to connect Google Assistant to people’s personal information as well, including migrating Nest accounts to Google as part of integrating the smart home brand into its tech ecosystem. The merge makes personalizing Google Assistant easier, though the consolidation has earned some blowback from the home building industry.

The data a voice AI picks up is critical for personalizing its behavior. Personalized service barely matters or is entirely irrelevant to 43% of smart speaker owners however, compared to the 18% who think it is very important. The divide becomes starker when considering future advances in personalization. A full 58% of smart speaker owners do not want their device to get better adapting to its owners, rising to 66% when the personalization would require an uptick in personal data collection.

Privacy Protection

Reluctance to share personal information despite potentially better service from a smart speaker likely comes from concern over who has access to the data and how it could be used. This summer, a rash of negative reports emerged about contractors hearing recordings made by all the big voice assistant brands, including intensely personal information that the owners didn’t know was being recorded. Google and Apple each apologized and changes were made in the programs, but those stories highlighted the nervousness some people feel about giving too much information about themselves to a smart speaker.

The privacy concern applies to governmental use as well. A Pew study earlier this year determined that 49% of Americans believe it is unacceptable smart speaker manufacturers to give audio recordings of customers to the police and other law enforcement as part of a criminal investigation. It’s not a hypothetical problem. Amazon chose to fight a court order to give recordings from an Echo device to law enforcement in an Arkansas murder case. The company eventually handed over the audio, but only after the defendant gave his consent. Overseas, the German government is arguing about whether to use voice assistant data in courtrooms as part of criminal trials. The value of a personalized voice assistant is easy to understand, but there are plenty of people who are fine with owning and using a smart speaker but will resist personalizing their voice assistant if it means potentially compromising their privacy.


Amazon Launches Alexa Skill Personalization Features

Why Home Builders Don’t Like How Google is Integrating Nest Devices

Update: Amazon Agrees to Hand Over Echo Voice Recording in Murder Case