Privacy fears cast cloud over digital assistants

Google, Apple and Amazon have sought to reassure consumers amid growing concerns around voice assistant privacy issues. (AFP)
Updated 03 August 2019

Privacy fears cast cloud over digital assistants

  • We are committed to delivering a great Siri experience while protecting user privacy, Apple says

WASHINGTON: A series of privacy missteps in recent months has raised fresh concerns over the future of voice-controlled digital assistants, a growing market seen by some as the next frontier in computing.

Recent incidents involving Google, Apple and Amazon devices underscore that despite strong growth in the market for smart speakers and devices, more work is needed to reassure consumers that their data is protected when they use the technology.

Apple this week said it was suspending its “Siri grading” program, in which people listen to snippets of conversations to improve the voice recognition technology, after the Guardian newspaper reported that the contractors were hearing confidential medical information, criminal dealings and even sexual encounters.

“We are committed to delivering a great Siri experience while protecting user privacy,” Apple said in a statement, adding that it would allow consumers to opt into this feature in a future software update.

Meanwhile, Google said it would pause listening to and transcribing conversations in the EU from its Google Assistant in the wake of a privacy investigation in Germany.

Amazon, which also has acknowledged it uses human assistants to improve the artificial intelligence of its Alexa-powered devices, recently announced a new feature making it easier to delete all recorded data.

The recent cases may give consumers the impression that someone is “listening” to their conversations even if it’s rarely true.

“From a tech perspective it’s not surprising that these companies use humans to annotate this data, because the machine is not good enough to understand everything,” said Florian Schaub, a University of Michigan professor specializing in human-computer interaction.

“The problem is that people are not expecting it and it is not transparently communicated.”

Carolina Milanesi, a technology analyst with Creative Strategies, agreed that humans are needed to improve the technology.

“People have an unrealistic expectation that these assistants will by magic just get better. Right now we’re at the beginning of AI, and human intervention is still important,” she said.

Saudi Aramco shares open at 35.2 riyals after world’s biggest IPO

Updated 1 min 31 sec ago

Saudi Aramco shares open at 35.2 riyals after world’s biggest IPO

  • Aramco has priced its IPO at 32 riyals per share

RIYADH: Saudi Aramco shares opened at 35.2 riyals on Wednesday, 10 percent above their IPO price of 32 riyals, in their first day of trading following a record initial public offering.
Aramco has priced its IPO at 32 riyals ($8.53) per share, the high end of the target range, surpassing the $25 billion raised by Chinese retail giant Alibaba in its 2014 Wall Street debut.
Aramco’s earlier indicative debut price was seen at 35.2 riyals, 10 per cent above IPO price, raising the company’s valuation to $1.88 trillion, Refintiv data showed.
“Today Aramco will become the largest listed company in the world and (Tadawul) among the top ten global financial markets,” Sarah Al-Suhaimi, chairwoman of the Saudi Arabian stock exchange, said during a ceremony marking the oil giant’s first day of trading.
“Aramco today is the largest integrated oil and gas company in the world. Before Saudi Arabia was the only shareholder of the company, now there are 5 million shareholders including citizens, residents and investors,” said Yasir Al-Rumayyan, the managing director and chief executive of the Saudi Public Investment Fund.
“Aramco’s IPO will enhance the company’s governance and strengthen its standards.”
Amin Nasser, the president and CEO of Saudi Aramco, meanwhile thanked the new shareholders for their confidence and trust of the oil company.
Watch the livestream marking Aramco’s opening trading:

The sale of 1.5 percent of the firm, or three billion shares, is the bedrock of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ambitious strategy to overhaul the oil-reliant economy.
Riyadh’s Tadawul stock exchange said it will hold an opening auction for Aramco shares for an hour from 9:30 a.m. followed by continuous trading, with price changes limited to plus or minus 10 percent.

The company said Friday it could exercise a “greenshoe” option, selling additional shares to bring the total raised up to $29.4 billion.
The market launch puts the oil behemoth’s value at $1.7 trillion, far ahead of other firms in the trillion-dollar club, including Apple and Microsoft.
Two-thirds of the shares were offered to institutional investors. Saudi government bodies accounted for 13.2 percent of the institutional tranche, investing around $2.3 billion, according to lead IPO manager Samba Capital.
The IPO is a crucial part of Prince Mohammed’s plan to wean the economy away from oil by pumping funds into megaprojects and non-energy industries such as tourism and entertainment.