As Smart Speaker Adoption Grows; Privacy Policies Diverge

March 4, 2018

In just three years, 16% of the U.S. population has adopted smart speaker technology. As of December 2017, a study indicates that one in six adults in the U.S. own smart speakers. This is around 39 million people, an increase of about 128% from January 2017. The recent release of Apple’s HomePod (February 9, 2018) may spur even quicker adoption of smart speaker technology. Apple’s brand power, cult following, and coveted ecosystem will likely significantly increase the rate of adoption in the next year. It’s predicted that 75% of U.S. households will have smart speakers by 2020.
What exactly is a smart speaker? The tech industry appears to define smart speakers as wireless speakers with built in voice control. Currently, Google’s Assistant, Amazon’s Alexa, and Apple’s Siri are some of the most popular artificial intelligence personal assistants housed in smart speakers. Users interact with the AI voice-controlled personal assistants by a saying magic words that signals to the speaker to wake up and execute commands, “Ok Google” or “Hey Siri” for example.

Since these speakers are always listening, people have concerns about their privacy and who has access to their information and recordings; but will differences in privacy policies affect market shares?

Usually, the magic words are detected locally, and the devices only send recorded voice commands to the cloud to be analyzed and stored after hearing the magic words. According to Google’s privacy policy, its devices record what you say after hearing its magic words and sends that recording to Google in order to fulfill the request. They also state that “you can delete those recordings . . . anytime.” However, looking further into Googles’ privacy policy it appears on the surface they collect and keep everything else besides the recordings themselves. Additionally, Google collects information and associates it with unique device identifiers, which may be associated with your phone number or Google account. Exactly how much of your private information is provided to third-parties is not clear. Generally, they state that they will share information when Google has the user’s consent to do so. However, what it means by consent or how that consent is obtained is not clear, it could be that just using the product constitutes consent in some cases.
Amazon’s Alexa, has a similar policy with regard to the voice recordings themselves. Additionally, under the Third Party Services section of their privacy policy, Amazon appears to admit that it shares a lot of information, including the content of the requests made, with third-parties.
Apple has a slightly different recording policy. The recordings taken after hearing the magic words in the case of the HomePod are encrypted and sent to the Apple server with an anonymous Siri identifier that is not connected to an Apple ID or email address. However, the recordings are kept by Apple for six months associated with the unique anonymous Siri identifier and then for 18 months disassociated from the identifier in order to improve the service.
The privacy policies of the three big players: Google, Amazon, and Apple, vary in substantial ways; but how much of an impact this will have on market shares in the future is not currently known. I think it is far more likely that consumers will base their purchases on more traditional assessments including quality, price, and functionality. I also think that consumers are likely to stay with what they know, for example if they mainly use Google products; the familiar interaction with Google’s smart speakers will probably draw them to that product. This affect is even stronger in the case of Apple, which has a very excusatory ecosystem.
If you’re not one of the 16% of people that are already smart speaker owners and are looking to get your own, it would probably be a good idea to look over the privacy police of each and factor that aspect into your purchasing decision. If more consumers did this, it would be a good step forward in increasing everyone’s privacy rights because companies would likely have to start competing on this front as well.