When it comes to technology, John Borthwick knows what he is talking about. A former executive with AOL and Time Warner, Borthwick currently invests in tech for the Betaworks venture capital firm that he founded. He also has some strong opinions about one of the fastest-growing products in tech at this time, the smart speaker. Global shipments of the device rose 55.4% year-over-year
during the second quarter. While many consumers are purchasing their first speaker, some are adding additional units for their home.
Smart speakers are made up of a speaker and a digital assistant. Users can stream music, hear the latest news (weather, stock prices, and sports scores), control smart appliances, play virtual games, stream music, send texts, make phone calls, order items and much more. Amazon created the category with its Echo speakers that are equipped with the Alexa digital assistant. Another big player in this space is Google, whose smart speakers feature Google Assistant
. Borthwick recently told Yahoo Finance for its Influencers
series that he believes that Amazon and Google are using their speakers and AI-powered assistants to conduct surveillance on consumers. Borthwick says that some type of regulation might be needed. His concern is that consumers might not understand why tech companies are listening to recordings made of interactions between speaker users and digital assistants.
Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google have halted programs that listen to users' interactions with digital assistants without consent
"I would say that there's two or three layers sort of problematic layers with these new smart speakers, smart earphones that are in market now. And so the first is, from a consumer standpoint, user standpoint, is that these, these devices are being used for what's — it's hard to call it anything but surveillance...I personally believe that you, as a user and as somebody who likes technology, who wants to use technology, that you should have far more rights about your data usage than we have today,”"-John Borthwick, founder, Betaworks
Consumers could be unnerved by recent reports revealing that companies like Apple, Amazon, and Google have hired companies or employees to go through recordings of customers interacting with their digital assistants. The tech firms say that this is done to make sure that the virtual helpers are understanding the tasks that they are asked to do, and are responding appropriately. But in the process of scoring the abilities of assistants like Siri (Apple), Alexa (Amazon) and Google Assistant, the companies doing the review work are getting access to recordings that include personal information belonging to users without their consent.
Tech investor Borthwick says devices like the Amazon Echo are conducting surveillance on consumers
Back in April, a report revealed how Amazon transcribes recordings made of customers asking Alexa to handle certain tasks
. Amazon said that it uses these transcriptions to help Alexa understand slang, foreign languages and regional expressions. Last month, Apple suspended a program that used third party contractors
who would listen to as many as 1,000 snippets of recordings a day of Apple customers speaking to Siri. The issue here is that Apple never received consent from its customers to pass along the clips to the contractors. And because Siri sometimes activates by accident, the contractors said that they have heard Apple device owners engaged in sex, or speaking to doctors about personal medical conditions. Apple said that the contractors could not determine the identity of those heard on these snippets. Future versions of iOS will allow users to opt-out of any Siri scoring program if Apple decides to resume it. Google has also stopped its program while Amazon allows its users to opt-out. Facebook also suspended a program that had employees listen to voice commands made by users of its Messenger app.