Amazon Patent Eavesdrops, Targets User Ads

John Lister's picture

Amazon has patented a system for listening to devices in order to better target advertising to users. But it says it doesn't use the feature in its gadgets.

The patent dates back to an initial application in 2011, but the most recent version was not approved by the US Patent and Trademark Office until last November and has only recently been made public.

The basis of the patent is 'sniffer' technology, though that's used as an analogy to reflect the idea that the devices wouldn't permanently capture and store what people were saying. Instead they would use trigger words.

Saying 'Like' Would Trigger Recording

Once triggered, the devices would listen out so that "Topics of potential interest to a user, useful for purposes such as targeted advertising and product recommendations, can be extracted from voice content produced by a user." (Source: uspto.gov)

The patent explains that the trigger words could be used to "indicate a level of interest of the user." For example, it suggests listening out to identify when a user mentions that they "like" or "love" something. These terms could then be added to their profile to influence the ads they see or hear.

What makes the patent so compelling today is that we already know that Amazon has - and uses - such technology through its range of Echo home speakers. They listen out for a trigger word, which is "Alexa" by default, which tells the speaker to listen to, understand and act on the words that follow.

Amazon Denies Using Technology

In response to queries about the patent, Amazon was adamant that it doesn't use devices for targeted advertising. It issued a statement reading in part that "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." (Source: bbc.co.uk)

It may be significant that Amazon used the term "targeted advertising" in its response. It didn't mention "product recommendations", which also appear in the description of the patent. That could theoretically cover emails to customers or recommendations appearing on the Amazon site.

What's Your Opinion?

Do you believe Amazon's denial that it uses audio recordings to personalize targeted advertising? If you used a smart speaker or similar device, would you mind Amazon recording what you said you "liked" if that made for more relevant product recommendations? Would it make a difference if Amazon guaranteed the data wouldn't be shared with anyone else or left vulnerable to hacking?

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Comments

Dennis Faas's picture

Listening in on conversations in this manner is more like spying on people. I am willing to bet that eavesdropping on conversations already happens when you use certain apps, though the terms of use are so convoluted that most people don't have any idea what is happening. For example, on Android phones you can enable Google Voice for searching / personal assistance, in which case you can say "OK Google" and your phone listens to what you're saying. In this case the phone is actually listening in on your conversations 24/7, though is Google claims it is only triggered when you say "OK Google". Apple's Siri does the same. I would not be surprised at all if Google is analyzing what we say 24/7 for targeted advertising - the same with Amazon's Alexa units.

gmthomas44_4203's picture

Dennis, your comment is a no-brainer!