Voice-activated personal digital assistants such as Amazon's Alexa and Apple's Siri are becoming commonplace. These assistants are usually found in "smart speakers," a comparatively small, wireless network device that responds to voice commands after recognition of a pre-programmed “wake word”. “Alexa” is the digital assistant in Amazon's Echo speaker, just as “Siri” operates on Apple's iPhone format and “Cortana” is found on Microsoft devices.
Personal assistant devices are used primarily to stream audio, manage lists, set reminders, retrieve information, and control other connected devices such as lights, thermostats, appliances and door locks. Personal assistant
devices are used primarily to stream audio, manage lists, set reminders, retrieve information, and control other connected devices such as lights, thermostats, appliances and door locks. Obviously, these devices can be very handy when you want to know the time, temperature, get directions, make a quick telephone call or just listen to Taylor Swift’s new hit single. Some users now find these devices to be essential to their lives. The assistants, however, do present privacy concerns for individuals andsome businesses because they are always “listening” for the “wake word”and, in some instances, uploading audio data.
Be aware. A confidential conversation in a room with a voice-activated digital assistant may result in private conversations being recorded and uploaded to a third-party service provider. This raises a question as to whether inadvertently uploaded audio should be subject to discovery in litigation. Several recent criminal cases have allowed the prosecution to access audio incidentally recorded by smart speakers and they can certainly be used in pre-authorized surveillance. But what about accidentally recorded conversations about confidential business plans? Does a device owner have a duty to inform persons in the presence of a smart speaker that the device is "on" and may be uploading audio? What about attorney-client communications? Would a recording device uploading conversations strip confidentiality and remove the attorney-client privilege?
These small, unobtrusive devices will likely become ubiquitous and may be listening in areas where least expected. The ability to record yourself and others - intentionally and unintentionally - is becoming more and more common. We should all be aware that these devices may be recording our statements even in locations we previously considered to be “private” and take reasonable precautions to maintain confidentiality when required. In the meantime, at least we should acknowledge the potential consequences next time we say, “Alexa, let’s play Jeopardy!