“I Call Alexa to the Stand”: The Privacy Implications of Anthropomorphizing Virtual Assistants Accompanying Smart-Home Technology

Christopher B. Burkett • 20 Vand. J. Ent. & Tech. 1181

Abstract

This Note offers a solution to the unique privacy issues posed by the increasingly humanlike interactions users have with virtual assistants, such as Amazon’s Alexa, which accompany smart-home technology. These interactions almost certainly result in the users engaging in the cognitive phenomenon of anthropomorphism—more specifically, an assignment of agency. This is a phenomenon that has heretofore been ignored in the legal context, but both the rapidity of technological advancement and inadequacy of current applicable legal doctrine necessitate its consideration now. Since users view these anthropomorphized virtual assistants as persons rather than machines, the law should treat them as such. To accommodate this reality, either the courts or Congress should grant them legal personhood. This can be accomplished through the application of an objective test that is satisfied by the establishment of social and moral connections with these virtual assistants. Further, due to the paramount privacy concerns resulting from this technology’s use within the home, courts should establish a new privilege that protects the communications between users and their virtual assistants.