Alexa, How are you using my data?

Smart Home technology is a well saturated market with technology that just a short few years ago many thought could not be possible. We have long talked about voice assistants and video enabled devices but now technology that was once thought to be futuristic has arrived, seemingly omnipresent in many households around the global. Not only are Artificial Intelligence enhanced video enabled devices now available but they come in many varieties, from home protection to two-way video chatting with your pet.


Video “chat” with a pet?….

When did animals start chatting?


With these ever present devices in so many households – cameras, digital assistants, smart TVs, smart thermostats and more – are we enhancing our physical privacy or actually putting it in jeopardy? Are the benefits, such as automation, smart phone remote capabilities and more, worth the risk of data privacy?

Are you taking advantage of Smart Tech, or is it taking advantage of you?

So what’s the big deal if your smart home has data that’s making your life easier? Amazon’s Alexa can make it easier for you to order more household items. Google Home can integrate with Google Nest to allow you to control your A/C by simply telling it to change the temperature. All great features that help make things a little bit more convenient in our day to day, but what exactly are these companies doing with our data?

Amazon is pretty transparent in regards to the voice data Alexa is storing, a quick look on their website tells us that. But what about Google, their biggest competitor in the Smart Home space? Google is fairly transparent as well, though as previously mentioned in the intro post, changing your privacy settings may impact your service. Google’s privacy policy website tells us that they are mostly using your saved data to improve searches and targeted ads, see this video below:

These are great examples of transparency from these corporations and they outline relatively mundane uses for your data but it’s still important to understand. The future consequences of these corporations having your stored data should be the biggest concern. Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt said in 2010:

“One of the things that eventually happens … is that we don’t need you to type at all,” later adding: “Because we know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less guess what you’re thinking about.”

Eric Schmidt

Adapt that quote to the Smart Home and eventually Google doesn’t need you to speak to Google Home, rather the A/C just changes to suit your pre-determined preferences when you arrive home because of patterns in your stored data combined with Artificial Intelligence. Alexa doesn’t need you to tell her to order paper towels, they just show up because all of your stored data has told them it’s time for another shipment.

While these specific examples of transparency regarding data storage are promising, consider how much you’re willing to give away and where the line is with your data privacy. Consider the fact that these devices are always listening and while the corporations behind them may be simply using this data to “train” their AI, the government or third party apps could be using this data for other reasons.

In 2018 law enforcement subpoenaed Amazon for Amazon Echo data as evidence in a criminal trial for murder. The lines between privacy, technology and criminal justice are changing daily. Amazon is not the only tech company that has had this happen, Fitbit and Apple have run into similar situations.  While most technology companies are quick to defend consumer privacy the question still stands:


How much of your personal privacy are you willing to give away?


Letting AI into our daily lives is not something to fear but maintaining control over data and privacy should be a top concern. There’s many ways to protect your privacy, or at least limit your exposure, while utilizing the benefits of Smart Home tech. Awareness is the first step in achieving enhanced privacy. Visit 101 Data Protection Tips for a comprehensive list of ways to attempt to protect your privacy.


Up next: Data Privacy Part Four


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Robotics: Automation or Artificial Intelligence?

The rise of robotics – a long touted seismic shift in human existence, the day an inanimate creature is brought to life.  A scary reality in the minds of many conspiracy theorists, and a reality many tech leaders would have us believe is already upon us.  But how close are we to engineering a robotic race?

“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”

George Orwell, 1984

It’s difficult to not think about physical robots tackling common human tasks when we see the word robotics, but now robotics refers to a much larger application of technology and rising industry. Robotics refers to a focus on creating efficiency and replicating mundane tasks, a world that exists beyond purely physical robots, giving rise to automation bots.

Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is an example of an automation bot operating in a digital world. You may be thinking, obviously it’s automation, it’s even in the name, but what is RPA? Used to perform simple, repetitive tasks, such as data entry, RPA is a programmable “bot” that automates a process in order to free up more time for humans that would otherwise be doing these mundane tasks. RPA cannot be considered Artificial Intelligence as it does not have the ability to understand the implications of the tasks it is performing, or predict future scenarios arising from the performance of these tasks.

Amazon Scout

In contrast, Amazon’s Scout is out on the streets in California, a physical robot, making package deliveries.  This Scout robot may be physical and operate in the real world but similarly to RPA it is another example of automation, lacking human intuition. Just like RPA this Scout robot is programmed to deliver a package straight to your door, removing this repetitive task, lessening the burden on man and machine, but the bot is not capable of modifying the delivery location to the back door under the overhang when rain is predicted, unless the delivery instructions are explicitly programmed to do so.  Far from artificial intelligence, the Scout is simply a machine programmed to automate a repetitive human function.

While individuals commonly mistake robotics as artificial intelligence, it’s important to understand why RPA and delivery robots are not examples of true artificial intelligence. Are they intelligent bots? Maybe. They certainly process and execute complicated instructions and factor many variables, but they lack inherent cognitive function.  Humans are constantly concerned about the demise of humanity as robots are brought to life, but because artificial intelligence still lacks the ability to replicate common sense, the rise of the robotic race will still remain in the halls of science fiction.



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Data Privacy Series

When’s the last time you read the terms and conditions before clicking “accept” as you downloaded the hottest new app to your smartphone? Do you really know what companies are doing with your data from your search history, the pictures on your phone, or even your personal health records?

How our data,
personal details and digital patterns, is being used by the scores of apps,
programs, and devices we interact with on a daily basis remains a mystery. When
we click “Accept” on the terms and conditions page, usually in a
hurry, we are blindly 
“choosing” to opt in to whatever data collection and privacy
infringements the developer has built into the technology. What’s more, most
companies use vague statements on their websites regarding what they are doing
with your data and even threaten to impact your service if you decide not to
share your data.

For example, this snippet comes directly from Nest’s FAQ’s:

Nest FAQs

How important is that app or device?  Is it worth signing over your digital rights?


Join the
SolvetheUnsolvable team this month to explore how private your data really is…

Facial Recognition,
friend or foe? Family Heritage Mapping, a key to the past or losing control of
your future?… Who else is checking in on grandma? The hidden dangers in Smart
Home technology. Are you using your cell phone, or is it using you?

Check back in on
Wednesdays this October to learn more about data privacy…

Up next: Data Privacy Part Four


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Data Bias on the Daily: What’s in your Amazon Cart?

With multiple billions of packages shipped per year, and even
more billions of items purchased, it’s no
wonder that Amazon is a household name. In the time it takes you to read this
article, an estimated 100,000 items will be purchased on Amazon. But how many
of those purchases will be impacted by data bias? It’s likely every single one.

Have you ever
stopped to think about the algorithms behind those convenient home page
suggestions, people also purchased, and related to items you viewed? Maybe in
passing or idly but likely not in detail. In this post we will be exploring
just how much one quick search on Amazon can be littered with bias.

Bias can end up in
your shopping cart in many different stages along the way. It’s safe to assume
that Amazon wants to maximize it’s bottom line, even though they claim they
want to provide the consumer with a great deal. When the engineers set to
writing shopping algorithms at Amazon corporate, they have to add parameters
that are computable and achieve a certain goal. With this in mind, they are
likely adding the bias that they would like to increase Amazon’s bottom line
(aka, profitability of your purchase). Let’s apply this to an example search.

Perhaps you’ve been
searching for storage solutions for your messy closet. The moment your results
appear for “closet storage” you are encountering data bias. Exhibit
A, the screenshot below:

You’re looking at the first instance of bias because a majority of the page is showing you “sponsored” results. “Funding Bias” is written into many algorithms all over the internet and is the reason why sponsored items always show up first. These brands: JYYG, TYPE A, OUMYJIA and JEROAL are paying to bias your search. This is one of, if not the most common search bias encountered but we see so much “sponsored” content that, at this point, we may not even think of the bias’s effects.

Regulations have
been placed on funding bias, note the “Sponsored” tag and other
evidence for example on social media platforms when influencers post with
“#ad.” These indicators are set up to clue in the consumer that their
purchasing decisions are being biased by funded posts, something relatively new
the last several years. Corporations spent years biasing search history towards
paid posts without having to let the consumer know, this is a huge stride
against hidden data bias. There’s nothing wrong with “pay to play!”
As a consumer, this can be a helpful way to find one of your new favorite
brands, products or technology solutions but people now believe it’s important
for the consumer to know when funding is biasing their purchase.

Another example of
bias in this search are the items marked with the “best seller” tag.
Under “Help & Customer Service” Amazon.com says: “The Amazon
Best Sellers calculation is based on Amazon.com sales and is updated hourly to
reflect recent and historical sales of every item sold on Amazon.com.”
There is a litany of data bias that could be going on here. Was the
“Simple Houseware” organizer at one point a “sponsored”
post which led to it becoming a “best seller?” A quick google search
shows that Simple Houseware only sells on Amazon, this could be another
contributing factor to the status as a “best seller.” We simply do
not know the parameters the calculation is setting for “sales” as
that is quite a broad term.

To play devil’s
advocate, the “sponsored” 
results could be amazing products that you will purchase, love and even
re-order in the future. The data bias written into the “Best Sellers”
calculation could absolutely be favoring great products you will know and love.
However, it’s critical that we don’t turn a blind eye to the bias and we
continue to scroll past the “sponsored” and “best sellers”
to get a full picture for purchasing.

The objective of
this article isn’t to get you to stop buying from Amazon but rather to consider
the data bias right in front of you. If there is this much data bias in one
simple Amazon search, how many more things in your life are impacted by data
bias? How much is your business and its bottom line impacted by data bias?
Algorithms, AI and their inherent bias are a part of daily life. How will you
use them to create change for good?


Up next: Data Privacy Part Four


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Data Bias on the Daily

Our upcoming September Blog series is Data Bias on the Daily: How Data Bias in Artificial Intelligence is Impacting You. This series will focus on data bias in various forms encountered daily and the goal is to educate consumers on how bias can enter algorithms, knowingly and unknowingly. It is important to define bias:

Bias: The systematic favoritism that is present in the data collection process, resulting in lopsided, misleading results.

How to Identify Statistical Bias

Bias in Artificial Intelligence and algorithms is sometimes intentional, can be caused by a number of things including, but not limited to, sample selection or data collection, and can be avoidable, if that is the desired outcome. (Many corporations want to write their algorithms with bias, in order to increase their bottom line.)

Maybe you’re a woman searching for a STEM job, but the data is biased against your application? Perhaps, your Amazon search is biased towards products and brands that will only increase Amazon’s bottom line? Data bias is even entering our judicial system, is it possible that algorithmic “advancement” is simply confirming long standing racial bias?


Stay tuned to learn more about how Data Bias impacts our daily lives by checking in with us on Mondays in September (9/16, 9/23 and 9/30).



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