Alexa? The NSA? Americans are Afraid of Digital Assistants Spying on Them

Since whistleblower Edward Snowden leaked documents about the NSA’s surveillance programs in 2013, Americans have become warier of technology invading their right to privacy. And it’s not just the government playing Big Brother. From Facebook’s controversial facial-scanning technology, malwares that let creeps watch you through your webcam and the Equifax hack, we see more instances of technological innovation eroding privacy and the American public is uneasy.

A recent Harris Poll revealed that privacy is a number one priority for Americans as 97 percent insist it is important to have rights to their own data; and half fear digital assistants are listening in on their day-to-day conversations.

The data was gleaned from surveying over 2,000 U.S. adults over the age of 18 between December 27 and 29, 2017.

“Americans are weighing the trade off between the benefits of convenience and privacy, but the thing is when it comes to privacy, we just don’t know the extent of the invasion and how much we should give or are giving up in the interest of national security or understanding consumer habits,” say John Gerzema, CEO of The Harris Poll. “The issue is how can we have safety and technological innovation while safeguarding the sanctity of the American home?”

Last Friday, the adversarial journalism website, The Intercept, rolled out another document from the Snowden archive disclosing the NSA’s ownership of voice-recognition technology, predating Alexa and Siri, that can identify people through their voices. Privacy experts, however, say we have more to fear from corporations than the government.

“The NSA technology won’t affect most Americans right now,” said Ben Wizner, director of ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project and Snowden’s lead attorney. “What is touching most Americans is that companies like Amazon and Google are persuading millions of Americans to put surveillance devices into their homes; devices like Echo that are capable of recording and eavesdropping on the kinds of communications that we have.

His advice: “It’s probably not wise to keep [the devices] on at all times, if you don’t want to create a risk that you’re actually spying on yourself for others.”

Restoring public trust in the powers that be will require a revised legal system with a consumer bill of rights. Unlike Europe, the US is currently the only country in the industrialized West without a basic consumer privacy law, Wizner told The Harris Poll.

“We need the law to protect us in a way that it didn’t have to in the past,” Wizner said. “It will require courts to reinterpret the constitution for the digital age.”