How to be smart about smart speakers?

Anouk Mols

Big companies like Amazon, Apple, and Google are finding their way into the living room through their intelligent personal assistants Alexa, Home Pod, and Echo. 15% of American households have an Amazon Echo, 7% a Google Home. Having a device that listens to you is convenient, but at the same time smart speakers can give an unsettling feeling. Anouk Mols of Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication examines the relationship between humans and their digital assistants.

If you Google "weekend trip" using a keyboard, you can already expect ads for hotel arrangements to pop up. Nowadays we can talk to the tech giants via intelligent personal assistants in mobile phones and smart speakers, which means many people feel like they’re being eavesdropped. In part that's correct: in order to respond to our questions and commands, Siri and Google Assistant have to listen. Still, that's no reason to get scared, says PhD-candidate Anouk Mols of Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication. 'But we do have to examine how these devices influence our decisions when it comes to privacy.'

Nearly 19.7 million smart speakers were sold during Q3 2018, an increase of 137% compared to 2017. This makes smart speakers the fastest growing consumer technology, especially in the US.

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Hoe gaan we slimmer om met slimme speakers


US vs NL

Mols‘ PhD research is part of the Mapping Mobile Privacy and Surveillance Dynamics project, in which she works with fellow Erasmus researchers Jason Pridmore and Daniel Trottier, as well as researchers from the universities of Maryland and Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Through questionnaires and interviews, this project examines how Americans and the Dutch use different technologies, including digital assistants.

325 employees of Erasmus University and 1160 employees of the American universities were interviewed about their use of digital assistants on their phones (like Siri and Google Assistant) and smart speakers. If you ask people in American universities if they know of the Amazon Echo, 95% says yes. In the Netherlands, only 54% knows the device. That's to be expected, as the device has only been available in the Netherlands since October 24th.

People in both countries have concerns about privacy, but compared to Americans, Dutch respondents are more worried about the processing and possible selling of personal data to third parties, and the use of data to predict behaviour and interests. Both Dutch and American university employees have little trust in the privacy agreements of smart speakers and protection against hackers.

'Google, turn on the lights'

'Americans have integrated smart devices more into their daily lives,' says Mols. 'The question is how fast this integration will take place among Erasmus University employees, as many respondents consider themselves late adopters. If you don't experience what these devices can do, you're talking at cross-purposes. That's why we did group interviews with 36 people that participated in the questionnaire. They could use a Google Home device that was connected to Netflix, Spotify, and their home lighting. Subjects could say: 'Ok Google, turn on the lights and play Bruno Mars'. If you are more familiar with the technology, you can judge the advantages and disadvantages somewhat better. During the interviews, many participants indicated that they don't see themselves using smart speakers, but at the same time they say they think the technology will become a success.'

Fear of eavesdropping

Practical issues ('I’d have to buy new stuff') aside, there was also fear of being eavesdropped. Mols: 'Every participant had that fear. People aren't afraid that their data will be shared with their own government, but with commercial parties.' Maybe that's not crazy, since these devices do "listen" continuously for their trigger word ("Ok Google"). Google says their smart assistants don't send information before the trigger word is registered. Mols doesn't believe devices like Google Home also send information to Google's headquarters without the activation of the trigger word. 'Storing and processing that data is too much work, even for Google. But you do have to realise that all your queries, either entered by keyboard or dictated, are stored in a data profile. That data profile is enriched with meta data, like location history, which apps we use daily, and our contacts.'

Buying on command

In the Netherlands you can edit your Appie (an app for the country's biggest supermarket chain) shopping list, talk to Buienradar (a weather app), or ask for the location of a parcel via PostNL. More companies have, or are developing agents for smart speakers. Mols: 'There will be more possibilities to connect your banking information to services to pay via your smart speaker. The threshold to buying products will become lower.' Like in the US, for instance, where a child ordered a dollhouse via Amazon's Alexa. When a TV programme mentioned the incident, Alexas in viewers’ homes were triggered to order dollhouses again.


'It's good to look critically at the permissions we give these devices,' says Mols. 'The platform economy is dominated by big companies like Google, and thrives on user data. Other companies want to ride along, not only because can they use the data for tying customers to them, but also in order to build data profiles of these customers. You can ask yourself if connections will be made with your insurance company or your municipality. It's important that we stay in control of smart speakers' possibilities and that we're in control of the financial connections and the meta data that is being collected. We have to make sure we stay smarter than our smart speakers.'

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