Main Highlights:

  • According to a discovery made this week, Amazon uses voice data from its Echo devices to provide targeted adverts on its platforms and across the web.
  • According to the investigation, which researchers conducted at the University of Washington, UC Davis, UC Irvine, and Northeastern University, Amazon’s actions violate the company’s privacy policies.
  • Amazon confirmed to The Verge that it uses voice data from Alexa interactions to help choose which advertisements to run on Amazon and other sites where Amazon advertises.

According to a revelation published last week, Amazon exploits speech data from its Echo devices to provide tailored advertisements on its platforms and across the web. According to the analysis authored by scholars at the University of Washington, UC Davis, UC Irvine, and Northeastern University, Amazon’s practices are inconsistent with its privacy regulations.

The report, titled Your Echos Are Heard: Tracking, Profiling, and Ad Targeting in the Amazon Smart Speaker Ecosystem conclude that Amazon and third parties (such as advertising and tracking services) collect data about your interactions with Alexa via Echo intelligent speakers and share it with up to 41 advertising partners. This data is then utilized to infer user interests and provide tailored advertisements on- and off-platform (Echo devices) (web). Additionally, it finds that this data is in great demand, resulting in “30X higher advertisement bids.”

Amazon acknowledged to The Verge that it does utilize speech data from Alexa interactions to inform the display of relevant adverts on Amazon and other sites where Amazon advertises. As with making an purchase or requesting a song through Amazon Music, if you ask Alexa to get paper towels or play a song on Amazon Music, the record of that purchase or song play may be used to inform related adverts displayed on Amazon or other sites where Amazon displays ads.” According to an email from Amazon representative Lauren Raemhild.

Additionally, the corporation revealed that tailored advertisements are displayed on its smart speakers. Customers may see interest-based advertisements when they engage with ad-supported premium content, such as music, radio, or news streams, Raemhild explained, adding that this is the same experience as if they connected with the material on other channels. She stated that Amazon does not share recorded voice messages with developers. She explained that developers obtain the information essential to fulfill your requests within their talents, such as the answers to trivia questions or the title of the music you like to play. We do not disclose our customers’ personal information to third-party service providers without the customer’s approval. Amazon allows Alexa users to opt out of ad targeting (see sidebar).

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Umar Iqbal’s research proposal

The report’s ten authors, led by Umar Iqbal, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Washington, developed an auditing methodology for measuring the acquisition of internet advertising data. They then built a variety of identities to communicate with Alexa using third-party skills; these personas each had a distinct interest, including spirituality, connected cars, smart homes, pets, fashion, dating, navigation, drinks, and health. Additionally, they established a “vanilla” identity as a check.

The statistical research findings revealed that each persona received targeted adverts elsewhere on the web, implying that innovative speaker interactions are utilized for ad targeting on the web and in audio commercials. This resulted in the researchers concluding that “strong evidence that smart-speaker interactions are utilized for ad targeting. This ad targeting entails considerable data sharing across several parties.”

The study indicates that only processed transcripts, not raw audio, were exchanged, corroborated by Amazon’s Raemhild. Additionally, intelligent speakers tracked less data activity than previous research on smart TVs and virtual reality headsets. According to Amazon, the study is faulty. Numerous results in this study are based on incorrect deductions or guesswork by the authors and do not fully reflect how Alexa operates, Raemhild explained. They do not sell personal information about their clients and do not share Alexa requests with advertising networks.

According to Raemhild, all third-party abilities that gather personal information must disclose their privacy policies on their skill page, and developers may then use the data in line with those policies. For instance, an ad-supported music streaming service may allow users to opt-in or opt-out of interest-based advertising wherever the service is available,” Raemhild explained. However, the investigation discovered that such policies were patchy at best, with more than 70% of the skills reviewed failing to mention Alexa or Amazon and just ten skills (2.2%) explicitly referencing data gathering techniques in their privacy policies.

The authors conclude that there is a need for increased transparency regarding the collecting, sharing, and usage of data via intelligent speakers. They emphasize that these gadgets are currently dark boxes without open interfaces that would enable independent researchers to discover what data is gathered, how it is exchanged, and how it is used.


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