Last week a report was released which concludes that Amazon does actually use the voice data collected from their various Echo devices to serve users targeted ads not only on Amazon platforms but the wider internet too.
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This may not come as too much of a surprise as for years it has been hypothesized that this may be the case, however, the researchers found that the way that this appears to happen is inconsistent with Amazon’s own privacy policies.
The research paper is titled “Your Echos are Heard: Tracking, Profiling, and Ad Targeting in the Amazon Smart Speaker Ecosystem” and has been produced by researchers from the University of Washington, UC Davis, UC Irvine, and Northeastern University.
The research found that Amazon and third parties which include advertising and tracking services, collect data from your interactions with Alexa through Echo smart devices and share it with as many as 41 advertising partners.
This collected data is then used to “infer user interests” and “serve targeted ads on-platform (Echo devices) as well as off-platform (web).” It also concludes that this type of data is in hot demand, leading to “30X higher ad bids from advertisers.”
The researchers did note however that at no instance did they see any evidence of raw audio files being shared to any of the partners, but instead a transcript style document that contained the key user interests data.
The collective of researchers came to their conclusions by creating a framework to measure online advertising data collection. They then created a number of different ‘buyer’ personas to interact with Alexa using third-party skills; each persona having a different specific interest which included things like spirituality, connected car, smart home, pets, fashion, dating, navigation, beverages, and health. They also created a standard “vanilla” persona as a control for their experiment.
The authors ended their report by stating that they believed there is a need for greater transparency into smart speaker data collection, sharing, and use. They noted that these devices are currently “black-box devices without open interfaces that allow independent researchers to expose what data is collected or how they are shared and used.”
If you are interested you can see the full research paper here.
Amazon’s Response To Allegations
Whilst it was no surprise that Amazon would use any customer data they had to try and build out a better recommendation engine to give users a better experience, the main allegation from the research authors stemmed around the privacy controls and consent of third parties being able to access this data.
“[Amazon places ads] Similar to what you’d experience if you made a purchase on Amazon.com or requested a song through Amazon Music, if you ask Alexa to order paper towels or to play a song on Amazon Music, the record of that purchase or song play may inform relevant ads shown on Amazon or other sites where Amazon places ads.”Lauren Raemhild, Spokesperson, Amazon
She also went further to say that only data relevant to the Skills (A term used to describe the technology behind building voice apps on Echo devices) are shared with the third-party developers and that data is only shared with the users’ consent.
When speaking specifically about the research paper Amazon questioned the legitimacy of the experiments done and had the following to say:
“Many of the conclusions in this research are based on inaccurate inferences or speculation by the authors, and do not accurately reflect how Alexa works…We are not in the business of selling our customers’ personal information and we do not share Alexa requests with advertising networks.”
The report, however, found this to not be entirely true as with the data that they found they concluded that more than 70 percent of the skills it examined did not even mention Alexa or Amazon, and only 10 skills (2.2 percent) were clear about data collection practices in their privacy policies.
It has been a tough week for Amazon, following a disappointing Q1 2022 financial results announcement and the stock price taking a hit, this report is not going to help further trust in the marketplace from either buyers or sellers on the marketplace.
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