Amazon has filed a patent for a new ‘eavesdropping’ functionality for its voice activated assistant Alexa. The technology is currently only activated when a user triggers it into life by saying its name, such as ‘Alexa, find flights to New York’ or ‘Alexa, dim the lights’. However, the new patent is for technology that would allow Alexa to listen in to conversations without being activated by name and recommend products or information based on eavesdropped conversations. Privacy campaigners have already raised concerns that the technology as described in the patent application filing could be subverted for surveillance.
The latest technology in the world, particularly when it comes to social networks and digital services that monetise through advertising, is often considered a double-edged sword. Services such as Google, Facebook and Amazon, as well as many smaller platforms, websites and digital services, can be personalised and improved by tracking our online behaviour. We can even sometimes find ads targeted to us on this basis useful. If we are going to see advertisements in exchange for using a free service is it not better that they are at least for products and services that roughly correspond to our interests, needs and tastes? However, as demonstrated by the recent Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal, both the scale and depth of the personal data technology companies can compile on us, as well as how secure it is, understandably worries many.
The patent filed by Amazon in 2017 details what is termed a “voice sniffer algorithm”. The software would ‘listen’ to conversations from microphones Alexa is hooked up to such as in smartphones, computers or its Echo speakers.
Positive and negative trigger words such as ‘love’, ‘like’, ‘want’ and ‘hate’ would build complex personal profiles. Voice and facial recognition technology would also allow the algorithm to separate different individuals.
Products or content could then be suggested or tailored to the personal profiles built up. If the phrase ‘Mum loves Paris’ were picked up from a conversation in June, when October came around and Alexa instructed to suggest birthday presents for Mum, plane tickets or a book on Paris could be suggested.
Amazon have, however, stated in response to concerns raised by the patent that it does not use Alexa voice recordings for targeted advertising. The company commented further that “Patents take multiple years to receive and do not necessarily reflect current developments to products and services”.
Nonetheless, that the kind of technology the “voice sniffer algorithm” patent describes is considered a step too far by some is understandable. One of the greatest challenges the latest technology in the world of digital services that involve building personal profiles has is how to balance the advantages to usability, personalisation and revenue this can bring with the danger of being perceived as overly intrusive. It is certainly the case that tech companies file many patents and by no means all of them become part of products or services. It is also a given that the “voice sniffer algorithm” would be an optional setting that users would be able to choose to activate or deactivate. However, there is still a slightly ‘spooky’ feel to the potential of such technology.