U-M Researcher Florian Schaub: Alexa’s New Privacy Voice Commands Are An ‘Important First Step’

By Amit Chowdhry ● May 30, 2019
  • University of Michigan School of Information assistant professor Florian Schaub recently discussed smart speaker privacy concerns
  • Schaub provided feedback about the new privacy commands Amazon designed for Alexa

Florian Schaub, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Information, recently participated in a faculty Q&A where he discussed his opinion on smart speaker privacy concerns.

This is especially relevant since Amazon introduced an option to easily delete voice commands earlier this week by saying a command like “delete what I just said”

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And Schaub pointed out that the privacy feature for deleting voice commands not enabled by default. The privacy feature still has to be enabled in the Alexa privacy settings on Amazon’s website or app.

“These new voice commands are the first important step towards better integrating privacy controls into the device user experience,” said Schaub in the faculty Q&A. “Keeping track of your privacy doesn’t have to be difficult if the privacy controls are designed well, and we have been suggesting for some time that smart speaker makers should offer voice commands like this.”

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Schaub’s research has shown that there needs to be better ways to mute the microphone. While smart speakers device have mute buttons, very few participants in the study had used it on their devices because they thought it would only switch off the speaker, not the microphone. And it would also require users to walk to the device and press a button on it which is different from the typical way of interacting with the smart speaker by voice.

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“It would be great to see Amazon and Google also introduce voice commands to mute the speaker for a period of time. For example ‘Alexa, stop listening for the next 10 minutes’ could mute the device and Alexa could then announce when it is ready for voice commands again after the 10 minutes are up,” added Schaub.

How Amazon will make everyday consumers aware of the new privacy controls is still unknown. Voice assistants generally require users to learn what commands they respond to by trial-and-error with the exception of a few commands. This creates extra work for helping users discover features.

Schaub emphasized that the “delete what I just said” command is especially important since it removes something from your history after realizing at the moment that something could be sensitive. And Schaub also believes that it would be nice if a user could ask Alexa to delete voice history for specific times like the last 2 hours when guests were over for dinner.

“For longer time spans, it might be more useful if users could just opt out of Alexa storing voice history at all,” Schaub commented.

This new feature will unlikely get smart speaker technologies out of the hot seat when it comes consumer privacy. Essentially, Amazon did not change what data is stored or what data customers can review. The main difference is that customers are able to delete prior recordings using their voice rather than doing it through Alexa’s privacy settings.

Schaub said that this is a big step towards usable privacy controls for smart speakers. But the bigger policy conversation should be about limiting what data companies collect and how they can use it and share it as well as creating “consistent privacy requirements and protections across companies and industries rather than focusing on specific sectors, such as online services or smart devices.”