Sudbury·Tech Matters

How much privacy are you willing to give up for convenience, LU prof asks

Concerned about how much Alexa and Siri are listening in?

LU prof says data captured by digital assistants likely isn't used maliciously

How much privacy are you willing to trade for convenience? Professor Aaron Langille says it's something everyone with personal devices should ask. (Elaine Thompson/Associated Press)

Concerned about how much Alexa and Siri are listening in?

That's the question that Aaron Langille, a professor at Laurentian University, is encouraging people who buys personal voice assistants, like those made by Apple, Amazon and Google, to ask.

His comments come as people begin questioning how much the devices listen to conversations around the house, even when they are not being summoned.

But to always be listening, Langille said, is part of the design.

"What they do is listen for key phrases that tells them to switch into a mode where they start listening for your instructions," Langille said. "Whether it's to play music, or give directions, give a definition...they listen, switch to a mode and execute your commands."

Aaron Langille is a professor at Laurentian University in Sudbury. (Markus Schwabe/CBC)

A further concern for some is that some servers upload users' voices and keep them. The details aren't always clear how much they store, and what the reasons are for hanging on to voices from the past.

"There are a lot of articles from various sources that say they are listening, and the way they get away with it, is that [they state] in their terms of service, they will in fact take snippets, random snippets, not whole conversations, just trying to improve their ability to answer questions."

But Langille said he isn't fearing the worst.

"I don't think a lot of the information is being used maliciously," he said. "Not much more serious than the occasional ad you mentioned in conversation with someone."

"But that doesn't mean we don't have the right to say we're not comfortable with it."

Langille also recommends that users read those terms of service before they set up their assistant.

"Certainly they are rather dense and long, but I suppose the condensed version of it...is you have to balance your personal comfort level with privacy and the convenience the device gives you."

As for the question of how much privacy should people give up to enjoy the latest tech, Langille said he advises his university students to never do anything online unless they are willing to have the whole world see it.

"We have to make a decision. Is constant fingertip access to news and weather worth it?"

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