For years now, security experts have warned of privacy risks associated with using Amazon’s and Google’s AI-based, virtual assistants carelessly. Alexa- and Google Assistant-powered devices have been known, for example, to share our conversations with random people from our address books. They can disarm alarms for criminals or be hacked with lasers by neighbors. Indeed, with their new, deep learning algorithms, virtual assistants have been caught secretly recording key stroke sounds and piecing together conversations.
All of this is bad enough for one’s personal privacy. But in an era of remote working, the concerns about these devices jump up a notch.
When people work form home, the line between their professional and personal lives doesn’t just blur, it often gets erased. That means personal privacy concerns become company security concerns. Thus, asking Alexa to make you an espresso while on a Zoom call seems innocent enough. But if the device captures sensitive, work-related information (and can easily be hacked), it could create a nightmare scenario for your company’s IT security team.
Moreover, to behavioral scientists there’s something even more troubling: the potential for adverse changes in how people work.
Generically speaking, remote working has been known to cause negative behavior changes among staff and leadership. Psychological challenges, such as depression and feelings of isolation, top the list of concerns. However, performance is also damaged—with studies before and after the pandemic both showing productivity tends to fall dramatically when people work from home.
Adding AI-based, virtual assistants to the situation complicates and potentially aggravates these problems.
If you or your staff are feeling depressed, for example, you’ll likely engage in more procrastination during work time. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what these devices are designed to encourage. Recent surveys indicate, for example, that 80% of new Amazon- and Google-powered device users permanently change (and increase) their consumption patterns of music, TV, weather and news.
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Overall, your wellbeing and that of your staff is also a concern.
While there are few studies on the direct feedback effects of AI-based, virtual assistants on remote work, we do have some insights on how new tech tends to effect work behavior. The fear of missing out (FOMO), for example, makes people constantly check text and email messages. The use of psychological triggers creates buying impulses and stress. And distraction from information overload lowers productivity. In addition, there are numerous medical challenges to round-the-clock, tech use.
For all these reasons, Alexa- and Assistant-enabled devices can be ‘dangerous’ in a remote working environment if you or your company lacks a clear strategy or protocol for their use. In other words: you should stop using these devices until you’ve changed or examined several key settings, which include:
—Muting them (or turning them off if you’re a larger business). Obviously, the easiest way to eliminate the challenge of the devices is to mute or turn them off altogether. Under the muted setting for most devices, you can still use the remotes. This disallows the assistants from hearing conversations and recording them. And recording is a serious challenge. Recordings made by Alexa, for example, are kept forever and exposed to human eyes. Larger businesses could have greater concerns than smaller ones here, since staff are often logging into a more sophisticated, intranet to work. Through that portal sensitive information can be accessed. In that case, it might make sense to insist these devices be turned off completely (and logs regularly checked, just in case) until Amazon, Google or others offer better security features.
—Turn on sound notification. By default, notifications of when Echo (and some Google devices) turns on, are set to ‘silent’. By adjusting this setting to ‘on’ you are telling the device to alert you of when it is accidentally triggered and, hence, recording your activity.
—Delete all historical recordings and opt-out of Alexa recordings. You can explicitly opt out of Alexa’s recording of your commands and conversations, as well as delete historical records, following a few simple steps. However, some experts continue to raise concerns as to whether your data are not still evaluated, even if transcripts are deleted. Thus, this step is not fail-proof, in terms of achieving corporate levels of data security.
—Re-evaluate work skills for Alexa and Assistant Business devices. Many offices already use Alexa or Google Assistant for Business in non-remote, traditional office settings. Despite their focus on facilitating work tasks, however, Alexa and Assistant business applications were not intended for remote work. So while these applications aim to boost productivity they are not designed to automatically distinguish work and private life. As a result, any Alexa or Assistant business applications you hope to use should be re-evaluated. For example, Alexa lists over 40,000 work “skills” that can be used for business, such as reading emails from Gmail or Office 365, reporting of SLA breaches, reading out of business KPIs and resource application allocations via AWS accounts. These are great but any office leader must decide whether these make sense to continue using from home. For example, are group work skills still necessary if no one’s encountering their colleagues physically? Does a meetings room organizer (one of Alexa Business’s hot features) still make sense? Again, these skills need to be re-examined by team leaders to ascertain whether it makes sense to enable the devices for supporting remote work.
—Use common task, Alexa/Assistant business accounts in an isolated work room. The common task element of both Alexa and Assistant business applications facilitates collaboration. If you still want to use these features in remote working, it makes sense to insist each staff member works within an isolated work environment at home. That means having all business devices (speakers, TVs, microphones, etc.) in one, closed space that cannot be accidentally disrupted by the dog barking.
—Create separate “business” and “personal” profiles. If you don’t have business accounts or if you don’t plan to use virtual AI for common tasks, then creating multiple accounts is a good option. Both Alexa and Assistant allow multiple accounts, which enables users to separate their work-related, “assistants” from their personal ones. This would mean actively separating your personal calendars, lists and reminders from business ones, obviously not attempting to use both simultaneously on different devices. It’s unclear whether the learning algorithms will not enable certain automatic merges of information after recognizing your voice. In the meantime, having, for example, a “Work Doug” and a “Home Doug”—that is, separate identities—could suffice, even if it feels weird.
—Consider using Google’s “Guest Mode”. While separate accounts could be useful, Google has one-upped Amazon by offering a Guest Mode security feature that enables you to use the assistant in an isolated session. The guest session commands are not recorded; however, Google has not clarified whether search results are depersonalized. Hence, multiple accounts could remain preferable to Guest Mode until this privacy point is clarified.
—View and delete recordings that already include business and work information. This is tedious, especially if many of your work colleagues are also friends. Again, it’s important to note that Amazon and Google aim to create an eco-system that ropes merges the business and the personal you. While that’s potentially profitable for the giants, it raises the issue of whether companies will demand to see the data you create during the work day and how that amounts to surveillance. Elsewhere, we’ve discussed why surveillance presents tremendous negatives for both business owners and staff. But that doesn’t mean many managers won’t do it anyway. Fully separating your information before remote work becomes permanent is a smart way to avoid this problem.
—Disable the smartphone address book sharing feature. This prevents Alexa or Assistant from sending details of your conversations to anyone in your address book. If you’ve successfully separated business and persona accounts (as well as address books) this further enables you to avoid confusing the device or trigger accidental actions by the assistant.
—Disconnect any devices not directly and exclusively related to work. Now, Alexa and Assistant work with a myriad of different devices, apart from speakers, TVs and watches. These are too numerous to consistently remember how to set in “work” versus “free time” modes, with the potential to forget which ones are which. The easiest fix is to disconnect these devices altogether, using only the ones that directly aid work: e.g., the printer, a speaker, the espresso machine, etc.
With the rise in remote working, it’s likely Amazon and Google will soon respond to calls for greater security that can support the new work style. Right now, however, the tech giants are still following a strategy that leverages AI-based virtual assistants that encourage further data integration.
That presents certain convenience benefits for private users and tremendous commercial benefits for Amazon and Google partners. However, it creates great risks for businesses doing remote work. Until more is known about how these virtual assistants can be safely incorporated into remote working strategies, the safest course is for leaders to consider the above changes in their device settings.