An Evolution of Google Artificial Intelligence: Virtual Assistant Privacy Concerns

In a separate announcement, much quieter than the heralding of Nest and Google Hardware Teams uniting, Google announced that it would no longer maintain the “Works with Nest” program by the end of this summer.  And, as an alternative, Google announced that companies are welcome to join the “Works with Google Assistant” program, which allows companies to opt-in to support technology of Google’s AI virtual assistant.  But, what are the privacy concerns involved?

Out of Nest and Into Google AI: The Cost to Consumers

Devices that previously were “Nest-compatible” must now be, in essence, “Google-compatible.”  Further, Google has announced that in phasing out of Nest accounts, it would no longer allow the creation of new Nest accounts. Google further “strongly” encourages Nest users to migrate their pre-existing Nest accounts over to Google fully, because it is likely they could lose access to upcoming features and future technical support.

Google says that the decision to phase out of Nest accounts is business-centric because it would be costly and inefficient to support and maintain two separate account infrastructures. However, privacy experts and opponents of the merge heed caution of virtual assistant privacy concerns.  Critics caution that the erosion of such account division is merely another veiled move of Google to collect more information on consumers through Google’s virtual assistant.   

The Virtual Assistant Privacy Concerns Increase as AI Integrates into Daily Technology

Some experts similarly point to the further entrenchment and integration of AI virtual assistants into consumer’s daily lives, noting that AI-compatible devices or systems are no longer limited to smartphones or computers but now also include refrigerators, security cameras and even cars.  For example, the latest commercials running for the 2019 line up of Toyota cars all boast that they are compatible with Amazon’s AI virtual assistant “Alexa.” With such integration, wanted or not, virtual assistant privacy concerns become prevalent to consumers.

Even if consumers want to make purchase with no interest in the virtual assistant technology, they often have no ability to “opt-out,” uninstall, or even simply “turn off” virtual assistants.  For example, Samsung’s “Bixby,” Apple’s “Siri,” or Microsoft’s “Cortana” are standard technology on smart phones.  The hardware devices come preloaded with these virtual assistants and are often the first voice, screen, or interaction a consumer now has with the devices.  

Should Consumers Have a Choice on Integration of Virtual Assistants and Related Privacy Concerns?

Retailers like Amazon, Google, and Microsoft argue that the virtual assistant data collection practices, which often allow for no deletion, or even require any sort of disclosure in some cases, are integral to improving the consumer’s experience. They claim the AI algorithms that collect data are made to improve and learn to better understand and provide consumer support.  However, privacy experts find the inability to completely remove these assistants from their devices to be almost downright Orwellian.  In gathering consumer data and “learning” from consumers, without consumer ability to completely shut them off, virtual assistant privacy concerns are valid. 

Regulation Lacking on Virtual Assistant and Artificial Intelligence Technology

In fact, privacy experts note that with a lack of clear government regulation and oversight, technology giants have been allowed to get away with merely offering consumers an illusion of choosing to “turn off,” “opt-out,” and “not participate” in sending analytics to the manufacturer for years.  This ruse is no secret with companies such as Facebook admitting that it still tracks users that had deactivated their accounts. Google similarly has admitted that it still tracks users that have turned “Location History” off. And, LinkedIn users note that they still receive emails from the company about new contacts that want to “connect” even after “fully” deleting their accounts.  So, it seems that consumer choice and concerns of privacy around virtual assistants and AI aren’t often taken into account.

What Should Consumers and IP Attorneys Heed?

As long as regulations are lacking and lawmakers continue to turn a blind eye to such practices, consumers should be wary about how much and what they allow these virtual assistants and technology giants to “access.” Similarly, intellectual property counsel should be cognizant of what their clients intend to do with any analytics they collect on consumers and counsel clients appropriately when drafting terms of use and privacy policies that cover virtual assistants and AI to help address consumer privacy concerns.

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