Intel Patent Addresses Privacy Issues with Voice Assistants

Intel wants to lock your voice data down before it goes up to the cloud.

Photo of an Intel patent
Photo via U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

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Intel wants to give you peace of mind when talking to your digital assistant. 

The company filed a patent application for a “privacy preserving digital personal assistant.” Rather than sending your raw voice data to the cloud for processing, Intel’s tech encrypts that data to keep your personal information and identity from being shared in that environment.

“Existing digital personal assistant technologies force users to surrender the content of their voice commands to their digital personal assistance provider, and most actions of the available digital personal assistants are performed in the cloud,” Intel said in the filing. “This presents a large privacy and security concern that will only grow (over time) with increased adoption.”

In these cases, Intel noted, voice data is only protected with traditional encryption and cybersecurity measures once it’s already in the cloud environment. Intel’s system differs in that it relies on homomorphic encryption to protect user data. This kind of encryption allows computation to be performed on the data without revealing the data itself. 

When a user gives Intel’s system a verbal command, it uses homomorphic encryption on that data locally on the device. This system may do this by using speech-to-text on the command, then pulling out specific keywords and encrypting those for further processing. Finally, it transmits that data to a cloud environment hosting a natural language processing algorithm, which understands and responds to the user’s request. 

Along with keeping speech data safe, Intel notes that its method may reduce processing time and resources needed, thereby cutting down wait times in user interactions with the device. 

Tech firms are really keen on getting digital assistants right. Plenty of patents take different approaches to make these devices better listeners: Google has filed several applications for ways to monitor on-screen user activity, pick up on physical visual cues and location-based context to make its assistants sharper; Amazon wants to listen in for environmental noises; and Apple wants to watch for optical triggers to tell where voices are coming from. 

The end goal is to make these devices more intuitive, aiming to increase reliance and adoption by making these assistants more useful. Many have sought to do this by watching users closely, eliminating wake words, or embedding this tech throughout your household, aiming to pick up on more context on user habits. The problem with that, however, is the privacy that users are giving up for that convenience. 

Privacy issues can arise if that data is processed in a cloud environment, rather than on the device itself. If there is a breach and user voice data isn’t protected properly, it could leave a massive amount of personal information vulnerable. 

Intel’s system, however, goes in the opposite direction of most digital assistant-related patents. This tech aims to preserve privacy by encrypting the data at the source, and only taking what it needs to properly respond to requests.  

Though Intel isn’t exactly known for its smart voice assistants when compared to the likes of Apple, Amazon, or Google, it could be creating this software to license it to other voice assistant developers as adoption of the technology continues to grow. This kind of data protection could be especially pertinent in the advent of AI-based digital assistants.

Plus, Intel has long been overshadowed by Nvidia in the AI race, particularly for its chips. Expanding its software options and giving niche offerings to do AI right, such as protecting privacy, promoting ethics, or eliminating bias, could be a way in which it aims to stand out among the competition.