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Workplace Virtual Assistants: Are They The Next Privacy Risk For Employers?

Apple and Google recently announced that they will temporarily stop having contractors listen to recordings from their voice assistants in response to public outrage over privacy violations.

Bloomberg first reported months ago that Amazon employs thousands of people around the world to transcribe and review tapes of users talking to Alexa in order to improve its technology. Bloomberg also reported that Apple and Google have similar programs.

These human contractors have reportedly heard Siri users discussing private medical information or having sex. 

The human review process is intended to improve voice assistants so that they are less likely to accidentally listen in on conversations. However, Apple, Amazon, and Google all kept the fact that humans were reviewing some conversations secret from their users until whistleblowers notified the public.                          

A spokesperson for Apple stated that the organization will suspend Siri grading globally while it conducts a thorough review. In addition, Apple will give users the option to opt out of grading as part of a future software update. Google has stated that it paused its human review process to investigate but did not mention any intended future changes.

Amazon, on the other hand, has not announced plans to stop third-party human review of Alexa recordings.

Google and Amazon typically make data collection the default setting. Amazon users can opt out of letting Amazon use voice recordings for developing new features and improving transcriptions, but not for other purposes. Adam Clark Estes "Amazon Really Doesn't Give a Shit, Huh?" gizmodo.com (Aug. 02, 2019).

Commentary

Information technology service manager Gartner predicts that 25 percent of employee interactions with applications will use voice commands by 2023. Currently, only three percent of digital interactions are via voice.

The vice president of Gartner said they think the popularity of home-based virtual assistants such as Amazon Echo and Google Home will put pressure on businesses to utilize similar devices in the workplace.

Virtual assistants and voice recognition technology could help improve employee productivity. For example, Amazon's Alexa for Business can schedule meetings and manage employees' to-do lists.

Many organizations are already using voice-activated virtual assistants. Engineers use Nokia's MIKA to diagnose problems as they work on complex tasks. Marriott has partnered with Amazon to use Echo virtual assistants powered by Alexa to help with checkout procedures and managing amenities in rooms. Physicians have begun using voice technology to document patient data and order tests and medications.

Odds are you will see more voice-activated virtual assistants in your workplace.

Only discuss confidential information in areas of the workplace that are free of virtual assistants, or, if you have a virtual assistant in your office, unplug or disable it before having meetings and conversations in which sensitive information may be discussed.

To the extent these companies allow you to do so, opt out of allowing these devices to share your recordings with third parties.

Finally, don't forget that most employees already have smartphones with voice recognition technology in the workplace. Have everyone disable their virtual assistants or leave their smartphones out of the room during confidential meetings to prevent accidental recordings.

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