A report published last week claims that Amazon uses voice data from its Echo devices to serve targeted ads on its own platforms and across the web. The report, produced by researchers affiliated with the University of Washington, UC Davis, UC Irvine and Northeastern University, said the way Amazon does this is inconsistent with its privacy policies.
Entitled, “Your Echoes Are Heard: Tracking, Profiling, and Ad Targeting in Amazon’s Smart Speaker Ecosystem”, the report concludes that Amazon and third parties (including advertising and tracking services) collect data from your interactions with Alexa through Echo smart speakers and share it with up to 41 advertising partners. That data is then used to “infer user interests” and “deliver targeted ads on-platform (Echo devices) and off-platform (web).” It also concludes that this type of data is in high demand, leading to “30 times higher ad bids from advertisers.”
Amazon confirmed to the edge which uses voice data from Alexa interactions to inform relevant ads displayed on Amazon or other sites where Amazon places ads. “Similar to what you would experience if you made a purchase on Amazon.com or requested a song through Amazon Music, if you asked Alexa to order paper towels or play a song on Amazon Music, the record of that purchase or playback of the song may inform relevant ads shown on Amazon or other sites where Amazon places ads.” Amazon spokeswoman Lauren Raemhild said in an email.
The company also confirmed that there are targeted ads on its smart speakers. “Customers may receive interest-based ads when they use premium ad-supported content, such as music, radio or news broadcasts,” Raemhild said, noting that this is the same experience if they interact with that content on other channels. He went on to say that Amazon does not share voice recordings with developers. “Developers get the information they need to fulfill your requests within their skills, like answers when you play a trivia skill or the name of the song you want to play,” she said. “We do not share our customers’ personal information with third-party skills without the customer’s consent.” Amazon also allows Alexa users to opt out of ad targeting (see sidebar).
The 10 research scientists behind the report, led by Umar Iqbal, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Washington, created an audit framework to measure online advertising data collection. They then created a series of personas to interact with Alexa using third-party skills; these people had specific interests: spirituality, connected car, smart home, pets, fashion, dating, boating, drinks, and health. They also created a “vanilla” personality as a control.
Statistical analysis of the results determined that each person received targeted ads elsewhere on the web, leading to the conclusion that smart speaker interactions are used for ad targeting on the web and in audio ads. This led the researchers to determine that there was “strong evidence that smart speaker interactions are used for the purpose of ad targeting, and that this ad targeting involves significant data sharing between multiple parties.”
The report notes that only processed transcripts were shared, not raw audio, according to what Amazon’s Raemhild said. Also, compared to previous research on smart TVs and VR headsets, there was less data activity tracking on smart speakers.
amazon said the edge who believes the research is flawed. “Many of the conclusions of this research are based on inaccurate inferences or speculation by the authors, and do not accurately reflect how Alexa works,” Raemhild said. “We are not in the business of selling our customers’ personal information and we do not share Alexa requests with ad networks.”
The authors conclude that there is a need for greater transparency in the collection, sharing, and use of smart speaker data. They note that these devices are currently “black box devices with no open interfaces that allow independent researchers to expose what data is collected or how it is shared and used.”