UK Parliament Launches Inquiry Into Voice Assistants and Connected Devices

Britain’s Parliament has begun an inquiry into voice assistants and connected devices in an effort to measure their impact on the lives of the country’s citizens. The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee said it would look for any gaps in safety and security and ways to address them, though titling the investigation “Connected tech: smart or sinister?” suggests they may have already come to some conclusions on the subject.

AI Inquiry

The inquiry cites voice assistants like Alexa and Siri and smart devices like the (Google-owned) Fitbit as targets for investigation. The announcement suggests the benefits of this technology are inextricably linked to issues like data protection and privacy infringement. The goal of the committee is to get a better understanding of how this technology influences society and how to encourage more and better security. That includes both the dangers of hacking and the potential misuse of customer data. Ahead of its first meeting, the committee asked for written evidence on the subject, as well as suggestions for what the government can do to “encourage design that is safe, secure, environmentally- and user-friendly and human rights compliant.” The list of questions also obliquely references Britain’s departure from the European Union by mentioning “current geopolitical concerns” and what changes in the standards for imported goods and cybersecurity might mean in the near future.

“The innocent little box sitting inconspicuously in the corner of the room would seem to offer the ultimate in convenience, magically serving up information on demand, turning on lights or delivering a vast array of music. With such a smart set-up connected to the outside world however there is always the danger it will have a more sinister side, with users potentially sacrificing privacy, put at risk of cybercrime, or left open to uncovering harmful content online,” DCMS committee chair Julian Knight said. “Our inquiry will examine the risks and rewards from the rising popularity of connected tech in the home and beyond, whether it should be properly designed to protect everyone in society and to what extent the current rules governing smart technology are fit for a rapidly changing future.”

UK Voice AI

The British government has a mixed history with smart devices and voice assistants. A deal with Amazon gave Alexa NHS-provided medical advice for UK users back in 2019, and the voice assistant even began carrying the Queen’s Christmas Day Message in 2020. On the other hand, MPs have also raised concerns with Amazon about Alexa inadvertently promoting anti-semitic stereotypes by using information from conspiracy websites and reading lines from Wikipedia articles out of context. And a government report last year already suggested heavier regulation of American tech giants to protect the domestic radio industry and prevent British companies from losing control over how audio is created and distributed in the United Kingdom. The new inquiry may set the stage for those new laws, which the companies are unlikely to welcome.

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