Hey Siri, Can Companies Safely Use Virtual Assistants in the Workplace?

Is Siri safe to use at work?

The gang’s all here: Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s Assistant, and Microsoft’s Cortana are near-ubiquitous technology to have in your home, and more and more frequently, in your workplace. 

But amidst hacking concerns and privacy laws, how do companies protect employee and client data when using these tools? 

Voice activated virtual/digital assistants run on artificial intelligence (AI) and offer a multitude of services to users. 

The Pros:

At home

Being able to ask, “Hey Alexa, what’s the weather outside?” before you decide to put on your flipflops, or say, “Hey Siri, set a timer for ten minutes” when your hands are busy washing dishes, is very convenient. 

Integration between assistants and other Internet of Things (IoT)/Smart home devices is also a benefit. Users can stop fiddling with thermostats and instead just say, “Hey Google, turn the temperature up to 70 degrees” or “dim the lights by 20%.” 

At the office: 

There are other benefits to virtual assistant use. Instead of scrambling to join a conference call or finding the “share screen” button, users can ask their virtual assistants to “join the meeting” or “set a new interview date.” 

Employees can also use digital assistants as productivity tools, by creating break reminders, setting deadlines for themselves, or creating notes or voice memos. Tools like “create a shopping list” can also help teams stay organized when ordering supplies or coordinating events. 

The Cons:

One of the main questions around virtual assistants is: are they always listening?

The short answer is yes.

Voice-activated tools like Siri and Alexa have live microphones inside them and are, in fact, listening all the time. However, this is different from recording all the time—which is more of an insight into what data companies are gathering. What you say is often being recorded from the point at which you use the device’s “wake word”— for example, “Siri” or, “Ok, Google.” 

Once activated, the devices collect data in real-time. They gather information from different sources, including other smart devices on the network, cloud services, and the internet, and put the information into context using AI. This is how a user can say, “Alexa, cancel all my meetings for today, then tell me the capital of Wisconsin, and set a reminder to call Dad at three” — and all the requests can occur seamlessly. 

And it’s not just the semantics being gathered.

Even if you’re comfortable with your requests and reminders being recorded—bear in mind that it’s not just the meaning of the words being analyzed. There are many ways companies can use speech and voice data due to identifiable linguistic markers. Accents can help determine where someone is from, pitch can help determine both gender and age, and tone can carry information about all kinds of emotion. In addition, vocabulary is also useful data, used to determine things like social status. 

Combine all this personal information with things like geographical data, which might be collectible because your smartphone is on the same network… and you can see why virtual assistants, and the data contained in them, are a huge target for hackers. 

The upshot: 

Using virtual assistants might be convenient, but bear in mind you’re introducing a new attack vector with every additional smart device you bring to the office. 

Stratti’s take: while they have downsides, virtual assistants can be useful in many cases and increase productivity within your team. We recommend using them on public networks such as your guest wifi, not private networks like your secure domain, and only keep your devices in use where they can’t accidentally record internal information. If you need help properly setting up your office network, please reach out…our technicians can help!