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Report shows that Amazon uses data from Alexa smart speakers to show targeted ads

A report released last week claims that Amazon uses voice data from its Echo devices to display targeted ads on its own platforms and the web. The report, compiled by researchers affiliated with the University of Washington, UC Davis, UC Irvine and Northeastern University, said the way Amazon does this is in violation of its privacy policies.

Entitled “Your Echos are Heard: Tracking, Profiling, and Ad Targeting in the Amazon 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 parts that with as many as 41 advertising partners. This data is then used to “derive user interests” and “display targeted ads on the platform (Echo devices) as well as 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 that it 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 purchased on Amazon.com or requested a song through Amazon Music, if you ask Alexa to order paper towels or play a song on Amazon Music, the registration of that purchase is played or song. may inform relevant ads displayed 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 can receive interest-based ads when using ad-supported premium content – such as music, radio or news feeds,” said Raemhild, pointing out that this is the same experience if they engage with that content on other channels. She went on to say that Amazon does not share voice recordings with developers. “Developers get the information they need to meet your requests within their capabilities, such as answers when playing 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 allows Alexa users to also opt out of ad targeting (see sidebar).

The 10 researchers behind the report, led by Umar Iqbal, a postdoc researcher at the University of Washington, created an audit framework to measure the collection of online advertising data. They then created a series of personas to interact with Alexa using third-party skills; these personas had specific interests: spirituality, connected car, smart home, pets, fashion, dating, navigation, beverages and health. They also created a “vanilla” persona as a control.

Statistical analysis of the results determined that each persona displayed targeted ads elsewhere on the web, leading to the conclusion that intelligent speaker interactions are used for ad targeting online and in audio ads. This led researchers to conclude that there was “strong evidence that smart speaker interactions are used to target ads, and that this ad targeting involves significant cross-party data sharing.”

The report notes that only processed transcripts were shared, not raw audio, which is consistent with what Amazon’s Raemhild said. In addition, there was less data activity tracking on smart speakers compared to previous studies of smart TVs and VR headsets.

Amazon Echo smart screens.
Photo by Dan Seifert / The Verge

Amazon told The edge that it believes the research is deficient. “Many of the conclusions in this research are based on inaccurate conclusions or speculations from the authors and do not accurately reflect how Alexa works,” Raemhild said. “We do not sell our customers’ personal information, and we do not share Alexa requests with advertising networks.”

Raemhild said that all third-party skills that collect personal information should publish their privacy policies on their skills page, and that developers can then use that information in accordance with those policies. “For example, an ad-supported music streaming service may allow customers to sign up or opt out of interest-based ads wherever this service can be used,” said Raemhild. However, the report found that these policies were spotty at best, with more than 70 percent of the skills it surveyed not even mentioning Alexa or Amazon, and only 10 skills (2.2 percent) were clear about data collection practices in their privacy policies.

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 without open interfaces that allow independent researchers to reveal what data is being collected or how it is being shared and used.”

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