Amazon Alexa would use voice data to create personalized ads according to a study

Researchers from the universities of Washington, UC Davis, UC Irvine and Northeastern University claim that Amazon is using voice data to serve personalized ads on its own platforms in a report titled: Your Echos are Heard: Tracking, Profiling and Ad Targeting in the Amazon Smart Ecosystem.

The report specifies that both Amazon and other third-party companies, including advertising services, collect data on users’ voice interactions with the company’s speakers and share it with up to 41 partner advertising companies. They then use this data to “infer users’ interests” and serve “targeted ads” both outside of the speaker platform and on their websites.

Alexa experiment

This research has been published by as many as 10 different researchers, with Umar Iqbal, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Washington leading the way. The researchers wanted to measure the level of data collection using listening frameworks. They then created a series of users to interact with Alexa using the Echo’s famous skills, with specific interests (health, cars, dating…).

The analysis determined that each person received personalized ads elsewhere on the web, making it clear that interactions with the smart speakers are used for ad targeting on the Internet and in Amazon Echo ads. There was, according to the researchers, “strong evidence that smart speaker interactions are used for the purpose of ad targeting,” involving “significant data sharing between multiple parties.”

Mind you, only processed transcripts were shared and not raw audio. In addition, it was determined that compared to previous research with other devices, such as Smart TVs, more moderate tracking of data activity was conducted in the case of the Amazon Echo.

Amazon’s response

This has been confirmed by Amazon to The Verge, which explains that it uses this voice data to “personalize relevant ads shown on Amazon or other sites where Amazon places ads.” As Amazon spokesperson Lauren Raemhild details, “if you ask Alexa to buy paper towels or play a song on Amazon Music, the record of that purchase or playback of that song can be used to show relevant ads displayed on Amazon or other sites where Amazon places ads.”

The same goes for its Amazon Echo. Amazon’s speakers, according to the spokeswoman, also allow “receiving interest-based ads” when users use “premium content with advertising”. From Amazon insist that they do not use this voice data with other developers, that is, they do not share them. “We do not share our customers’ personal information with third-party skills.”

However, Raemhild does not believe the research. “Many of the conclusions of this research are based on inaccurate inferences or speculation by the authors,” and denies that Amazon is “in the business of selling our customers’ personal information.” It further specifies that all of Amazon’s third-party skills that make use of personal information must publish their privacy policy and how they treat data.

Opacity of Amazon’s policies

However, this is something that criticizes the study, which ensures that more than 70% of the skills not only did not mention Alexa or Amazon, but also did not publish their privacy policy. Only 2.2% had clearly established these policies. The researchers, for their part, conclude by calling for greater transparency in the collection, sharing and use of data in these products.

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