According to a new report: Yes, Alexa is spying on you…and yes, listening to you is the reason you may be getting those uncomfortably specific ads. Whether or not that gives you the heebie jeebies, one thing is clear: ad targeting is becoming smarter than ever before, for better or worse. 

Academics have recently published, “Your Echos are Heard: Tracking, Profiling, and Ad Targeting in the Amazon Smart Speaker Ecosystem,” a report that sheds a light on this topic that has been nettling the back of people’s brains for years. 

The report claims that “Amazon processes voice data to infer user interests and uses it to serve targeted ads on-platform (Echo speakers) as well as off-platform (web).”

So again: Yes, Alexa is eavesdropping and subsequently using your voice recordings for targeted ads showing up wherever you go online, not just Amazon.

But how exactly? Here’s the way in which Amazon gadgets, Amazon Echo devices, Alexa, and adverts are all tied together.

Here’s How Alexa’s Snooping Can Be Used By Third-Party Advertising Partners

When you use the wake word “Alexa” and ask her to buy something or play your favorite song, it’s no surprise that that data filters into your browser-based Amazon shopping experience. 

But it goes further than that. Information you ask your Alexa device is not only collected by Amazon and third-party tracking services, but also shared with as many as 40 advertising partners. This data generates ad auction bids from advertisers that are as much as 30x higher than bids without this information. 

This implies that Amazon is benefitting significantly from sharing your private data. In turn, the companies then build a profile on your habits and interests, leading to specific targeted advertising. 

But it goes EVEN further than that. Amazon’s Alexa also incorporates third-party “Skills,” which can collect data on anything from custom alarms and timers to multi-room audio and cooking instructions. Amazon then uses this Alexa data from these Skills to further build out your targeted advertising profile.

The problem here, according to the report, is that more than 70% of Skills don’t mention data collection from Amazon or Alexa, and “only 10 (2.2%) skills are clear about data collection practices.”

All of this implies in the report that there is significant data sharing across multiple different parties; moreover, this data sharing is never properly disclosed to the public, which raises Alexa privacy concerns.

How Researchers Came to This Conclusion

The 10 research scientists behind the report (coming from the University of California-Irvine, University of California-Davis, University of Washington, and Northeastern University) created multiple fake personas that simulated interactions with Alexa. 

These fake personas were configured to install and interact with Skills associated with their respective interests, which included: 

  • Connected Car
  • Dating
  • Fashion & Style
  • Pets & Animals
  • Religion & Spirituality
  • Smart Home
  • Wine & Beverages
  • Health & Fitness
  • Navigation & Trip Planners
  • A “Vanilla” Persona (as a control)

The result: Statistical analysis determined that after simulating interactions (with Alexa listening), each persona was served targeted ads elsewhere on the web, leading to the conclusion that smart device interactions are used for ad targeting on the web and in audio ads. 

This led the researchers to determine there was “strong evidence that smart-speaker interactions are used for the purpose of targeting ads.”

If this makes you want to throw your Alexa out the window, don’t do that just yet! While you can’t stop Alexa from always listening to you (these listening devices operate with voice commands, after all) there are ways to limit the reach of advertisers into your life, which starts with opting out of targeted ads with Alexa.

Here’s How to Opt Out of Targeted Ads On Alexa

Just follow these simple steps to Opt Out of Targeted Ads On Alexa:

  1. On a desktop browser or mobile phone, sign into your Amazon account.
  2. Click on the Amazon Advertising Preferences link.
  3. Select the button next to “Do not show me interest-based ads provided by Amazon.”
  4. Click Submit.

There are also more settings you might want to change through the Alexa app on your mobile phone.

Simply Tap “Manage Settings” and then “Alexa Privacy Settings.”

This is the central location where you can manage privacy to review voice history, control your Alexa recordings, and update the Alexa Skills you’ve granted permission to access specific data.

But while you are able to change this privacy setting, you should also be aware that things like Apple iPhone’s Siri, your computer, other voice assistants, and even your smart TV all try to listen to snippets of private conversations to collect data in order to hit you with more targeted advertising. Convenience comes at a price, and it’s not always the money you pay, but perhaps it is your personal data. This might be a larger part of ‘intent’ targeting in the future, so watch what you wish for…or talk about in front of your Alexa!

Although Alexa voice tracking can be off-putting, all of the world’s other major technology giants — Google (Assistant), Siri (Apple), Cortana (Microsoft), and Meta, whose Portal devices are designed with built-in Alexa functionality — are playing the same game. Basically everyone is listening, watching, and trying to make advertisements better and more targeted for you.

The good news is, there are ways businesses can leverage technology to reach their target audiences without being the least bit deceptive or obtrusive. If you need guidance in any way, or need advice on the best ways to reach your audiences without sacrificing trust, get in touch us today!

Kelly Hebron

Learn more about Kelly Hebron

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