Amazon files for Alexa patent that means she’s listening all the time

by Jo Smith in Microcomms News

The Amazon Alexa of the future could be listening to you all the time – and building up a detailed picture of what you want to buy.

That’s the suggestion of a patent filed by the company that details the idea of ‘voice-sniffing’ technology. Such software would allow the device to eavesdrop on conversations and analyse them, feeding that into a database for ads.

At the moment, Amazon’s Echo products are hardwired so they will only listen to users when they say the “Alexa” wake word. Amazon has denied that it uses voice recordings for advertising at the moment, and said that the patent might never actually come to the market. 

Alexa’s voice capabilities are currently used for playing music, controlling smart home devices and ordering things on Amazon, though only if the user asks for it. The recordings of people’s voices are stored on Amazon’s servers, but they can listen to those files and delete them.

However, the patent gets to a widespread fear about not only Amazon’s voice assistant but other technology too. A range of conspiracy theories – particularly about Facebook – suggest that companies are using their kit to secretly listen in on their customers, and then using that to show ads. 

The patent suggests that the Alexa of the future could listen out for specific words such as “love” or “hate”. The device could then listen to what people like or don’t like – and suggest they buy things, presumably through Amazon, on that basis.

If someone mentions they want to go on a journey to Paris, for instance, an ad might pop up suggesting the travel site they could book it from. If they say that they are looking to go to a particular restaurant on a particular day, it might ‘whisper’ that there is a table available. 

Amazon could even do the same for friends or relatives of the customer, the patent suggests. So, for instance, if someone says their parents are interested in a certain topic, it could associate that information with the person and use it to build up advertising data.

The company made clear that it does and is not able to collect such data at the moment, and might never use the technology described in the patent.

“We take privacy seriously and have built multiple layers of privacy into our Echo devices,” said an Amazon spokesperson. “We do not use customers’ voice recordings for targeted advertising. Like many companies, we file a number of forward-looking patent applications that explore the full possibilities of new technology. Patents take multiple years to receive and do not necessarily reflect current developments to products and services.

Amazon Echo uses on-device keyword spotting to detect the wake word. When these devices detect the wake word, they stream audio to the Cloud. You can review voice interactions with Alexa by visiting History in Settings in the Alexa App.

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