Artificial intelligence

AI Expert Ashlesha Kadam Shares Her Views On Security Concerns Around Voice Assistants

Voice assistants like Siri, Google Assistant and Alexa have become household names around the world. Today, users of all ages across countries, and in multiple languages, use these voice assistants to make their lives easy by setting reminders and alarms, or to entertain themselves by playing music and podcasts, or to stay abreast with what’s happening in the world by listening to the news. 

Further, with advancements in AI, these assistants only keep getting better. That includes knowing exactly what music to play even when you don’t specify it, or presenting the news on exactly those topics that would interest you.

While voice assistants came to smartphones in 2011 and to smart speakers in 2015, their adoption seems to have settled at a comfortable 50-60% penetration rate in the US across the three leading device platforms offering access to the technology, meaning that only about 1 in 2 people use voice assistants effectively. One of the top reasons cited by users for not adopting voice assistants is that they don’t trust them, and don’t want “something listening in on their life all the time”. (source:

Ashlesha Kadam is a top industry expert and leader in the voice technology space, and also among the foremost women in technology at a global level, who leads technical product development at one of the world’s biggest tech firms. 

She has spent over a decade in technology, with a track record of success in various tech roles from being a software developer in the internet security space at Cisco Systems, to launching products on global marketplaces with millions of customers. Over the last few years, she has been leading end-to-end product development for music experiences on voice assistants like Alexa and Google Assistant for Amazon Music, a top global music and podcast streaming app available across 45+ countries. 

Talking about the privacy concerns around voice assistants, Ashlesha shared — “Users might worry about the devices constantly listening in, and that the device might store their personal information as training data and then mistakenly share it elsewhere accidentally. Or, they might worry about specific scenarios like hackers breaking in and controlling their home security systems or the device accidentally placing an order for something expensive.”

Ashlesha highlighted that there are many historic examples of ‘radically new’ pieces of technology, at the time of their introduction, invoking feelings of mistrust, uncertainty, and reluctance for adoption. “Remember the early days of mobile phones?” she points out. “Many people feared that whatever they would speak on the mobile device might leak out, many weren’t sure if the connection is secure and some even believed the mobile devices emitted harmful radiations. But over time, both users and producers of the mobile phone technology evolved, making it one of the most commonly used devices today.”

So how can the same trust be built between users and voice assistants? “I feel that there are 3 fundamental aspects towards building a safe, secure and trusting environment between users and voice assistants” Ashlesha noted, “the first one being the role of regulatory bodies to put in place sufficient regulatory obligations to protect users.” She shared that there are several laws like General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), and the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), that voice assistants are obligated to comply with. 

Kadam cited the example of GDPR saying — “it (GDPR) gives individuals the power to retain ownership and control of their data, make them aware of who is using their data, how, and why; gives them the right to search through, rectify, and even demand erasure of their data. While voice assistants need to be compliant with GDPR in Europe, companies making these voice assistants would likely consider making them GDPR compliant across the world.” Similarly, COPPA (Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act) requires consent for collecting and storing data for children below 13 years of age, she added.

The second pillar is the role that tech companies play in building trust in their technology. “Companies definitely need to provide clarity about their privacy policies and share transparently what data they collect from users, how it is handled, and how it is used. Going a step further, companies should proactively share with users what controls they as users have over their data and how they can opt out of sharing that data or erase data collected about them”, said Ashlesha. 

Drawing from her background as an expert in both internet security and consumer product development, she also added how the importance of security features like multi-factor authentication and data encryption, and further — educating users about these security features, can help build trust. Ashlesha is also a proponent for eXplainable AI (XAI) and its importance in establishing a trust between humans and machines.

The third and final pillar, as per Kadam, are the users themselves. “Instead of simply giving in to believing what everyone is saying, users need to take it upon themselves to ask the right questions and dive into understanding more about the security and privacy of voice assistants”, she suggested strongly. Mentioning how. companies proactively publish their policies for consumers to review, she urges the consumers to reach out to the customer service of the companies selling these voice assistants — if the policies are too complex to understand — to demand clarity about the guidelines these companies follow and hold these companies to high standards.

Kadam is actively pioneering innovation in her domain and has led several critical projects for Amazon Music, including launching it on Google Assistant, enabling music artists to introduce their songs in their own voices on Alexa — which was a first in the industry, and more. She has also filed 2 patents specifically in the field of voice assistants.

The curve of users developing trust with artificial intelligence and ultimately voice assistants and with what stipulations, will only be revealed with time. Ashlesha, however, is highly optimistic. “With advancements in LLMs (Large Language Models) that can converse more naturally with users and companies understanding and adopting explainable AI, voice as a preferred interface for humans with technology is set to grow more than ever. We have barely scratched the surface of this technology, and the future couldn’t be brighter” she says.

(Note: All opinions and thoughts expressed here are of the individual alone and do not represent their employer’s point of view.

About Ashlesha Kadam

Ashlesha leads a global product team at Amazon Music that builds music experiences on Alexa and Amazon Music apps (web, iOS, Android) for millions of customers across 45+ countries. She is also a passionate advocate for women in tech, serving as co-chair for the Human Computer Interaction (HCI) track for Grace Hopper Celebration (biggest tech conference for women in tech with 30K+ participants across 115 countries). In her free time, Ashlesha loves reading fiction, listening to biz-tech podcasts (current favorite – Acquired), hiking in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, and spending time with her husband, son and 5YO Golden Retriever.

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