Voice assistants are everywhere. They present weather forecasts, play our favourite music and work on their small talk skills. The better they get, the more they become part of our everyday life. What we sometimes forget: They're very good listeners, literally. To take our orders, they listen in. Always. Even in quite personal situations that are not actually intended for other people's ears.
As a matter of fact we don't know and don't decide which moments of our life are recorded, stored or analyzed by Siri, Alexa, Google Home and Co. A data protection problem and technical dilemma that deserves more attention. With the experiment "Alexa Cage" we have tackled it head-on.
We asked ourselves "How can we again determine when Alexa will listen and when not?" The idea: A soundproof housing that – just like Alexa – opens and closes on voice command, but – unlike Alexa – works offline and thus respects our privacy.
And we completely underestimated how well Alexa listens. To "switch off" the eight microphones temporarily, we tried noise cancelling, magnetic fields, white noise and much more. Nothing worked. After numerous tests and prototypes we found the solution: We distorted the sound recordings by direct noise on the microphones and packed the motorized unit in a case.
By taking away Alexa's hearing, we help an urgent issue being heard: the protection of our data.