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Smart speakers potentially affect users’ autonomy in daily life

Published: 15th June 2021 Last updated: 15th June 2021

Because of the voice-interaction, smart speakers such as Alexa or Google Assistant are potentially highly persuasive, can influence and manipulate users and affect their autonomy and control in their daily lives. That is the main conclusion Silvia de Conca drew in her PhD research at Tilburg University. She will defend the thesis on Wednesday June 23rd, 2021.

In less than five years, Alexa has become a familiar presence in many households. Amazon Alexa and its friend Google Assistant represent an evolution of IoT (Internet of Things): they have an advanced ‘intelligence’ based on cloud computing and machine learning; they collect data and process them to profile and understand users, and they are placed inside our home.

What are the consequences of that for the private sphere of the users of smart speakers, and what protections does data protection law offer? To find the answers, law researcher Silvia de Conca from the TILT (Tilburg Institute for Law, Technology, and Society) explored the phenomenon of smart speakers from both a legal and a socio-technical perspective.

Interpretations of the law

From a legal perspective, De Conca explored the application of the European GDPR and proposal for e-Privacy Regulation to smart speakers, as legislative tools for the protection of the private sphere in horizontal relationships.

This analysis resulted in suggestions on how to interpret and apply the legal framework in order to mitigate undesired effects. One of the issues to be resolved is, for instance, how to determine whether the owners of smart speakers should be considered controllers vis-à-vis the data of their guests. Other issues explored include the application of the prohibition for automated decisions in the context of multiple small decisions taken by the ‘smart home’, smart speakers being used for direct marketing messages and calls, and the implications of data protection by design and default on the design of smart speakers.

Users’ autonomy affected

From a more socio-technical angle, De Conca reflected upon what happens to the private sphere and the home once a smart speaker enters it. She included theories and concepts borrowed from history, behavioral science, socio-technical studies, philosophy, and behavioral design.

There is a potential conflict between the privacy expectations and norms existing in the home and the marketing interests introduced in the home by smart speakers’ profiling, she concluded. The role of the home as sanctuary of the private sphere can be altered by the presence of smart speakers, without the users’ awareness. Because of the voice-interaction, these assistants are potentially highly persuasive, can influence and manipulate users and affect their autonomy and control in their daily lives.

This issue goes beyond data protection, and has not been tackled at regulatory level yet. A societal and political debate will have to determine where the line should be drawn between acceptable practices and unacceptable ones.

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