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California Assembly Passes Smart Speaker Privacy Rules

Annie Greenley-Giudici

Voice Recognition Bill Moves to the California Senate

On May 28th, by a 42-6 bipartisan vote, California’s state Assembly passed a bill to impose rules on manufacturers of internet-connected devices sold in California that offer voice recognition features.

The bill defines voice recognition feature as the function of a connected device that allows the “collection, recording, storage, analysis, transmission, interpretation or other use of spoken words or sounds,” except where voice commands are not recorded or transmitted beyond the device.

Chapter 35 of the state’s Business and Professions Code already imposes similar rules on connected televisions.

The proposed amendments would firstly prohibit the operation of any connected device’s voice recognition features if the owner or designated user of the device is not prominently informed of the existence of such features during the initial setup or installation.

Mobile phones, tablets, smart speakers such as Amazon Echo or Google Home, and other IoT devices that can hear and respond to verbal commands would fall within the scope of the law.

The bill also requires that any recordings or transcriptions collected to improve the smart speaker may not be “used for any advertising purpose, retained, or shared with, or sold to, a third party…unless the user first provides affirmative written or electronic consent.” This includes those collected by the device, the device manufacturer, or third parties on its behalf.

This would effectively prevent the storing or sharing of recordings or overheard conversations once a device is activated with third parties until the connect device owner obtains demonstrable permission from the owner for the device to do so.

Pushback Against Smart Speaker Privacy Rules

Industry advocates claim that AB 1395 negatively affects connected devices’ potential for machine learning to recognize speakers’ voice patterns and limit incorrect “wake” words, undermining the goal of the bill by actually allowing for more conversation recording at inappropriate times.

The bill comes in the wake of news articles detailing how at least one smart home speaker company hired technicians to listen to device recordings for technology improvement reasons.

The bill’s next stop is with the California Senate, where it is expected to be voted on by September 2019.

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