I’m Listening

Amazon admits to using Alexa chats for customized ads

Your sneaking suspicion about being monitored by your smart assistant at all times is pretty much true.

PEARLAND, TEXAS - DECEMBER 17: An Amazon Alexa sits next to the refrigerator at the home of Mary Ves...
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We’ve all been there: You’re sitting at home having a casual conversation with a friend about needing to purchase something innocuous like a new pair of shoes. Less than a day later, you pull up Instagram only to find... a targeted ad promoting your favorite footwear brand’s flash sale. Never one to pass up a steal on Crocs, you smash that “purchase” button.

Of course, despite countless eerie consumerist coincidences like this, there’s technically not a whole lot of concrete data linking your ever-present smart assistant systems like Siri, Google Assistant, and Alexa to actually customizing advertisements based on audio data. Well, there wasn’t much until just recently.

Last week, a new research paper entitled “Your Echos are Heard: Tracking, Ad Profiling, and Targeting in the Amazon Smart Speaker Ecosystem” revealed loud and clear that Amazon, along with various advertising/tracking third parties, routinely harvest consumers’ voice data to personalize both on- and off-platform sales. And, if you can believe it, these tactics generally aren’t well-explained in privacy policies.

“Don’t mind me. Just pretend like I’m not even here.”Smith Collection/Gado/Archive Photos/Getty Images

No denying it — The paper’s authors explain that they found that “Amazon processes voice data to infer user interests,” a process that leads to upwards of 30-times-higher bids from advertisers. This data has been shared with at least 41 different ad companies.

What’s more, Amazon totally cops to the strategy when asked about it. Speaking to The Verge, a company spokesperson explained via email: “Similar to what you’d experience if you made a purchase on Amazon.com or requested a song through Amazon Music, if you ask Alexa to order paper towels or to play a song on Amazon Music, the record of that purchase or song play may inform relevant ads shown on Amazon or other sites where Amazon places ads.”

Part of the bargain — At this point, no one should be surprised by these kinds of revelations. The safest thing to do is assume that every interaction you have with smart products from a company like Amazon will be recorded for posterity (and profit’s) sake. Although you can go into the bowels of your security settings to adjust how much information is shared with the company and third-party advertisers, it’s still best to just always assume your life preferences are being monitored and tracked to extract as much money out of you as possible.