A new study digging into how Amazon uses Alexa voice recordings from its customers has concluded that the company and third parties leverage the audio to deliver targeted ads directly on Echo smart speakers as well as the web. That’s in contrast to Apple not using Siri recordings for ads and sharing voice data being turned off by default on devices like HomePod and iPhone since 2019. However, Amazon contends the new research is based on “inaccurate inferences or speculation.”
Reported by The Verge, the new study: Your Echos are Heard: Tracking, Profiling, and Ad Targeting in the Amazon Smart Speaker Ecosystem was done by researchers at the University of Washington, UC Davis, UC Irvine, and Northeastern University.
At a high level, the research concluded that Amazon and third parties are collecting and sharing Alexa voice interactions from Echo speakers with up to 41 different advertising partners. And that data is used to “infer user interests” and then deliver targeted ads on both Echo speakers as well as across the web. This voice data appears to be highly lucrative with the study claiming smart speaker interactions get “30X higher ad bids from advertisers.”
Responding to The Verge, Amazon spokesperson Lauren Raemhild said the company does use Alexa voice data to place relevant ads on Amazon and other places it has 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.
Raemhild also confirmed it uses targeted ads directly on its Echo smart speakers when customers use “ad-supported premium content.”
The study said it found it was only processed transcripts of Alexa data that were being shared not raw audio, which lines up with what Amazon says.
But the research raised concerns about the transparency of how Amazon collects and shares Alexa voice data. Allegedly, all third-party Alexa skills that collect personal info are supposed to publish privacy policies and follow them.
However, the report found that those policies were spotty at best, with more than 70 percent of the skills it examined not even mentioning Alexa or Amazon, and only 10 skills (2.2 percent) being clear about data collection practices in their privacy policies.
That led the researchers to conclude that “there is a clear unmet need for greater transparency and control over data collection, sharing, and use by smart speaker platforms as well as third party skills supported on them.”
For its part, Amazon’s Raemhild said:
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.
Privacy with Siri
While the study didn’t mention Apple and Siri, the research creates a distinction between how Apple and companies like Amazon may handle sensitive data.
Apple did land in some hot water back in 2019 when it was discovered that it was using <1% of Siri recordings to help improve the virtual assistant but it wasn’t using the data for ads or sharing it with partners.
And in late 2019, Apple shifted sharing Siri recordings to be opt-in. That means Siri recordings are not shared by default and users have full control of the privacy feature (Settings > Privacy > Analytics & Improvements > Improve Siri & Dictation).
Note: there was a bug with this in iOS 15 which Apple resolved in iOS 15.4.
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