"Alexa, Are You Good at Keeping Secrets?"


This article originally appeared in the February 2018 issue of Jerk Magazine and was written by Rashika Jaipuriar. Alexa, remind me to write that article for Jerk 

I wasn’t blown away by The Amazon Alexa when it first came out last summer, but now, she is a full-fledged member of our family. She can tell us about the weather, update us on the score of the Syracuse game, and translate English phrases to different languages.   

And then there’s Alexa’s new buddy ‘Echo Look,’ which takes #candid pictures of you to help you analyze your outfit and give you style opinions. Because a mirror isn’t enough.  

Your wish is literally Alexa’s command. Like a loyal pet, she’s always there for us, always listening. 

But is that a good thing?  

We tend to think that voice assistants like Alexa present privacy and security concerns because they’re always “on.” But of course, Alexa doesn’t turn blue/listen until you say the code word – her name, followed by the command.  

According to Amazon’s terms of use, Alexa streams audio to the Amazon cloud when you “interact.” But perhaps the real concern is Amazon’s storage of our information. Do I really want the world to have evidence of my ignorant questions, like when I asked “Is Migos really a trio?” or “What does dilly-dilly mean?”  

Or as one New York Times writer argued, “I put on a Barbra Streisand album the other day. It’s not something that I’m proud of, but these are complicated times and it happened. How do I explain that to Alexa?”  

You could go back to ‘Settings’ in the Alexa App and delete certain-or all-voice recordings, but that affects your “personalized” user experience. And isn’t the point of assistants that they anticipate your every need, perhaps know you better than you know yourself? 

Media-NXT, a project recently created within the Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Newhouse, helps identify new media technologies and shifting trends in the industry. According to its first report published earlier this year, digital assistants like Siri and Alexa will get better in terms of personalization and user experience.  

“Users’ willingness to provide permissions and information to these corporations will increase, enabling brands to take full advantage of intelligently curated digital experiences while enjoying an increased presence and trust,” the report says.  

Trust is an important word here. Like any relationship, you get what you give. But how much should you give? Amazon argues that all the data they collect–and there’s a lot of it–is used to figure out your interests and future purchases. Amazon will probably figure out your next favorite music artist before you do.  

Sean Branagan, director of the center for digital media entrepreneurship, argues that this data collection is “an unstoppable force.” And despite the occasional uncertainty, overall, consumers are generally open to share.   

“If you give me convenience, I will give you personal information,” Branagan says. “It’s a trade off.”  

Take this example: the GPS on your phone is literally tracking your every move, but we’re okay with it, because it helps us get to our destination. And although big companies like Amazon seem omniscient and omnipotent, Branagan says that essentially “we determine who gets trusted.” He argues that we choose to let strangers pick us up and take us to our destinations, and we choose to live in strangers’ homes in new cities. We as a collective society deemed these processes dependable. 

“Trust is transferred when there’s a trust interface,” Branagan said. “And [because of the voice] conversational interface has elements of trust, elements of familiarity.”  

I’m always a little hesitant to use new technology, and I worry about my dependency. I’m already addicted to my iPhone as it is. I can’t navigate any roads without following the GPS to a T. I check my email probably three or four times in one 80 minute lecture, and I look at the weather app constantly, to make sure I’m wearing the best possible outfit before facing the great outdoors.  

But being hesitant didn’t help man get on the moon. Yes, new technologies, like virtual reality and voice assistants, are new and possibly scary to some, but being ignorant of these devices and their full scope is more dangerous than using them without any knowledge.  

Personalized technology can be tremendously useful if we make an effort to fully understand their functions and just use common sense. I know we all skip this part, but maybe we should at least skim the Terms and Conditions? Or perhaps, have Alexa read it to us.  

Alexa, end article.