My thoughts on Amazon Alexa (and other voice-based 'assistants' - Google Assistant, Apple Siri, etc) have ebbed and flowed. Initially, I thought they were a bit clunky and not very useful. Eventually I slid towards an "experiment and see" kind of attitude. I even purchased an Amazon Echo device whilst writing a blog post about the topic.
Recently, I've been moving closer and closer to a more nuanced view on Alexa et al. Yes, I'm still an advocate for experimentation with technologies that can enhance the student experience. However, there's a cautiousness that's been creeping into my consciousness.
When it was disclosed that Amazon employs thousands of people who listen to what you say (directly or indirectly) to Alexa, warning bells went off inside my head.
The reason for this invasive monitoring, according to Amazon, is to make the product better for users. My guess is that an always-on microphone-laden device serves as an excellent surveillance instrument to feed the Amazon marketing/data machine.
We benefit as Alexa "gets better," but the flip side is that Amazon dives deeper and deeper into the most intimate location of our lives...our homes. Or, in the case of higher education, our dorms and learning spaces.
And that brings me to the core conundrum with Alexa et al. Students are being "given" access to new ways of accessing support/resources by way of voice-based assistants, but at what cost?
Amazon is literally listening to the daily lives of students at the invitation of universities.
And, students aren't necessarily happy about this...this opinion piece from the student newspaper at The University of Texas Dallas raises some legitimate concerns:
Echos also raise serious privacy concerns. They are “always on,” meaning that the devices are always recording and uploading audio to Amazon’s cloud servers. At a meeting with students on April 25, an Amazon representative confirmed that in addition to raw audio, each Echo will also upload a unique device identifier and location data, including the specific room it is located in. Although the Echos will have a microphone button that can disable voice recognition, the only way to turn the devices themselves off will be by unplugging them. The Office of Information Technology further stated that it would be notified if a device was unplugged, and they may disallow students from unplugging the devices to avoid any technical issues.
Seriously? What the [insert your favorite swear word here]? The Echos at UTD (and presumably at Northeastern University, Saint Louis University, and Arizona State University - other Alexa schools) aren't even providing full feature functionality to students, yet Amazon is gladly suctioning up student audio. And, the nerve of the IT office (or rather whatever kind of unholy contract between the university and Amazon exists) to penalize students who wish to have their privacy preserved by unplugging the Echo in their rooms.
Honestly, this seems less about student success and more about big business partnerships between institutions and data hungry corporations. If you want to learn more about the frighteningly dystopian direction that voice assistants are heading, head on over to Gizmodo to read: "The Terrible Truth About Alexa."
Voice assistant technologies are not inherently bad. However, with the capitalist-driven motivations of the corporations who currently provide the 'best' options in this space, it's an uncomfortable reality. Most of us use Google for search. We know that Google uses our search queries for all sorts of business purposes. But that isn't the same as always-on voice technology.
Universities have an ethically derived duty of care to the students that they serve. And, letting corporations surveil their students is a mammoth-sized breach of trust, ethics, and goes against the very ethos of higher education.
It took a lot of bad press (and financial dings) for Mark Zuckerberg to start saying that the future of Facebook is all about user privacy. Now, I trust his word about as much as I trust the President of the United States, but if there are indeed changes within Facebook that will actually ensure better user privacy, then that is a positive thing.
Amazon has yet to take as much of a media hit, but maybe if some of the current Alexa-friendly universities pull the plug and alert the media that they've done so (and why), then real change that benefits students could be possible.
TL;DR Voice assistant technologies that enhance student success shouldn't be at the expense of student privacy.
Full disclosure: I still have an Amazon Echo. It's useful for listening to music via Spotify, learning about random facts, finding out the weather forecast, setting timers, and catching up on the news. And yet, I find myself getting closer and closer to just unplugging it and using other ways of accessing these actions/functions.
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