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What to worry about when you worry about smart speakers

An assortment of recently launched Amazon devices, including an Echo Input, Echo Show, Echo Plus, Echo Sub, Echo Auto and Fire TV Recast are pictured at the company headquarters in Seattle in September. Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

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In just the last week, Facebook and Google have announced new smart speakers with video screens. And Amazon is bent on putting Alexa in everything. On the one hand, people seem to want these doohickeys. Research firm Canalys says global smart speaker sales grew 187 percent in the second quarter of this year. On the other hand, an always-on, always-connected listening device in the home really freaks out some folks. We dig into this in Quality Assurance, the segment where we take a deeper look at a big tech story. Molly Wood talked with Tom Merritt, host of the podcast Daily Tech News Show. He said before you decide whether to worry about smart speakers, you should know what you’re worried about. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Tom Merritt: It’s kind of the new “the CIA is listening into my telephone.” We all had mics in our house with telephones a long time ago and there were misperceptions about what could actually be done, or even if it could be done, how often it was done. It’s pretty well audited that these things are only listening for the “wake” word and not sending things to the cloud. I think there’s a lot of worry about the wrong things with the smart speakers. You should be aware of what it is collecting. But on the other hand, I don’t think that you need to worry that it’s constantly spying on you.

Molly Wood: Yeah, I mean, I feel like the reason we’re having the conversation is fundamentally about this trust thing. And it’s hard to say, “Yes, they’re gathering data about you and you don’t need to worry about it.”

Merritt: I think it’s all about knowing what they’re collecting and knowing what they’re using it for. I think that’s where the trust got lost, is people didn’t realize it was being collected and what it was being used for. People voluntarily let Nielsen collect information about them all the time because they go in it with eyes wide open, “I’m going to get this benefit in exchange for giving them that knowledge.” And I think that’s the situation you need to adjust yourself to, “What benefit am I getting by doing this? I’m able to turn the lights off in my house with the speaking of a word. Is that OK in exchange for Amazon knowing, “Oh, this person has smart lights, the next time I go to, I’m going to show them some suggestions for that kind of product”?

Wood: Do you think brand matters? I mean, now that Facebook is in the game and there seems to be a collective “heck no” around the idea of the portal … do you think that it comes down to whether you trust Amazon or Apple or Google or Facebook?

Merritt: Yeah, I think it does. And I think more people trust Facebook than is generally thought because Facebook’s user numbers are so high. Or if they don’t trust Facebook actively, they don’t mind. And I think they’ll sell some of these devices. I think brand matters even more in what people perceive they can deliver. So Google being able to deliver music in search results and a better AI is why they are starting to lead this game. Amazon having shopping is why they are in front and with Google nipping at their heels. I’m not sure Facebook can catch up in those respects. I think what bothers me more about all of this is we have these walled gardens, and once you pick one, it’s really hard to switch and certainly almost impossible to combine products from multiple providers. I can’t decide to say, “Oh, I’ll have a Facebook one in this room and a Google one in that room and an Amazon one in that room,” and have them all work together.

Wood: We’re kind of like guinea pigs, I think, at this point for all the technology that’s being thrown at us. And part of the reason people feel skeptical is that this is new. We’re the first generation I think you could argue that really are having to wrestle with these questions about privacy. Can we even really understand the longer-term consequences of the decisions we’re making today?

Merritt: No, I think that’s a good point is that nobody knows. These companies don’t know what the consequences of their collection are. I think in large part they are doing it out of a profit motivation. It’s not necessarily for your good. But I don’t think they have evil intent either. It’s an amoral intent for a large part. And I don’t know that they knew what the consequences were, and a lot of this backlash is a surprise to them because they drink their own Kool-Aid and thought, “Yes, but you’re getting this great free service that we’re providing. Why would you be upset with a little data collection?”

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