Tech investor says Google and Amazon are using their speakers to spy on you



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



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.


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.

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26 Comments

1. pimpin83z

Posts: 541; Member since: Feb 08, 2019

Good thing I have neither.

17. sgodsell

Posts: 7360; Member since: Mar 16, 2013

This article looks to mainly smear Google and Amazon, by saying they are using their smart speakers to spy on others. What about Apples Siri, Cortana, Bixby, Baidu, Alibaba, Xiaomi? Everyone of these voice platforms can only grow by taking everyone's requests, then seeing if they already have a formulated voice response, with maybe a visual response, including images, and/or links. There is literally millions upon millions of questions, that 8 billion people can come up with, and someone has to answer them. Computers cannot answer questions, by themselves. The other thing that is blatantly wrong with this article, is the lack of mentioning any information about smart displays. Especially when smart displays can do everything a smart speaker can do, only a lot more. Plus their is now 4 global voice AI platforms that support smart displays, Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa, Baidu, and Alibaba. Some analysts have said recently that by the end of this year (2019), both Google's Assistant and Amazon's Alexa platform purchases will consist of 35% smart displays, and will continue to grow. This makes total sense especially since both those platforms now have smart displays that are under a $100. With sales as low as $55 for a smart display. Apple's Siri, and Bixby have nothing to combat the other platforms smart displays. Plus Apple's Siri platform to develop voice apps is still to restrictive and limiting.

26. fatTony

Posts: 115; Member since: Dec 20, 2012

Your comment makes it seem as if you don't care about facts. While it is possible that Cortana, Bixby, and the rest you listed use the same tactics, the article calls out Google and Amazon because they control the bigger market share (impact more consumers), and the author has factual information about their activities. Nowhere in here do I see that the others don't do the same. You talk about smart displays, but who do you think are currently the market leaders? Let's not just sit back, put on blinders, and criticize articles without looking at the full picture. If someone says "the sun is not shining" do you then assume it is raining? No, because it could be night, cloudy, snowing, etc.

28. sgodsell

Posts: 7360; Member since: Mar 16, 2013

No, the real fact is that John Borthwick said voice assistants are spying. Alan, like always has to exclude his Apple love. So Alan only names two voice assistants. Do a web search, and you will see John Borthwick said voice assistants are spying.

2. Whitedot

Posts: 809; Member since: Sep 26, 2017

"invesrtor" typo .

16. Alan01

Posts: 611; Member since: Mar 21, 2012

Thanks! Regards, Alan

3. maherk

Posts: 6870; Member since: Feb 10, 2012

Spying is only allowed if you're an American company. If your Chinese, you're crucified even if there is zero evidence.

4. apple-rulz

Posts: 2112; Member since: Dec 27, 2016

So go live in China and enjoy paradise.

7. maherk

Posts: 6870; Member since: Feb 10, 2012

I wouldn't expect a better argument from a toddler.

8. AbhiD

Posts: 799; Member since: Apr 06, 2012

What's wrong with his point? In America private tech companies spy for themselves, in China "private" tech companies compulsorily spy for Communist government. And to top that they hand over all data to Chinese hackers too. What US is doing is to block spying Chinese companies from American land, just what China did(block most US companies in their own land). Bit too many Chinese apologists in here, eh... ?

10. raky_b

Posts: 388; Member since: Jul 02, 2014

Why would Chinese communist government spy on YOU???? Are you that important!? And by the way, US have every right to set up rules for all companies that would like to work in their land....and to allow market access to those who are obeying it, and stop all who don't. Same goes for china....their country, their rules. Apple obeys it, and they don't have any problems there. Problem is, in Huawei's case, that there is no evidence for what they are accused of, not one clue that prowess that they are not playing buy the rules which were set up by US.

23. AbhiD

Posts: 799; Member since: Apr 06, 2012

There is no evidence? What do you think? NSA will share evidence with you? And you only conveniently brought up Apple. What about Google, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Insta, Reddit, Tumblr, Snapchat, etc etc etc? When did Chinese govt prove that they were spying for US govt before blocking them all more than a decade ago? Won't ask for evidence in Chinese case? I was absolutely right. Too many chinese propagandists around the web. Infiltrated everything.

11. maherk

Posts: 6870; Member since: Feb 10, 2012

You really believe American companies don't share your data with the government? Lol And I'll say this again, the irony is rich that this is coming from OnePlus's number one fan on this site, the company that was caught sending your data to private servers. While on the other hand, you attack a company that is ACCUSED by the US government of spying. Solid facts vs accusation :)

22. AbhiD

Posts: 799; Member since: Apr 06, 2012

I very explicitly call Chinese companies "spies" for Communist government in my post above, yet kiddo has the nerve to call me OnePlus fanboy. LMAO!

21. peschiera

Posts: 20; Member since: Sep 17, 2017

@AbhiD: sorry but what you are saying is wrong. Look up for the secret program PRISM revealed in 2013 which gave NSA and FBI direct access to all big US companies including: - Apple - AOL - Facebook - Google - Microsoft - PalTalk - Skype - Yahoo! - YouTube And the worst: the companies were obliged to lie if asked about the access to their data. So who are the bad guys here? The Chinese?

24. Gryffin

Posts: 60; Member since: Dec 19, 2018

So US gov and its companies already have our data and you want chinese gov to have it too?

5. Awalker

Posts: 1977; Member since: Aug 15, 2013

It's the same with the government. The US government can spy on you but if another country does all hell breaks loose.

19. MsPooks

Posts: 116; Member since: Jul 08, 2019

No. Spying is allowed when YOU gave the companies permission to spy on you. You think Google's magic works in a vacuum? You gave them permission to harvest your data, and want to whine about it now; sorry, but your fake indignation falls on deaf ears. The Chinese spy on you with or without your consent. Your hotel room is bugged. Cameras are on you everywhere. Your internet is monitored without your consent. Big difference.

6. Shazam777

Posts: 42; Member since: Aug 08, 2018

"invesrtor"

9. raky_b

Posts: 388; Member since: Jul 02, 2014

No way...who would though that!? I think that Huawei is the one that is dangerous...Facebook, Google and Amazon are doing that to help us with things that we didnt even know we need help with. They are doing that for better customer support... And I am 100% sure that president Trump will say that it can't be used for other purposes...

12. maherk

Posts: 6870; Member since: Feb 10, 2012

You should leave a disclaimer that you're being sarcastic, American government's apologists will not get your sarcasm.

13. gadgetpower

Posts: 149; Member since: Aug 23, 2019

Its not surprising for a product to sell for cheap. They surely have hidden agenda.

14. rouyal

Posts: 1582; Member since: Jan 05, 2018

Well, duh.

15. OneLove123

Posts: 1060; Member since: Aug 28, 2018

And Apple doesn’t?

18. stferrari

Posts: 56; Member since: Dec 15, 2014

OK Maherk.....At least American companies don't have to steal from Chinese to get product technology. They just develop it.....and then the Chinese steal it, copy it and sell it back to Americans too ignorant not know better than buy it. The Chinese are proud and intelligent people but are so in a rush to control the world markets that they have NO patients for innovating so resort to stealing to accelerate there plan.

20. tjb79

Posts: 2; Member since: Oct 09, 2018

*SPITS OUT DRINK" WORD!? This is the first I'm hearing of this possibility.

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