Shhh … Alexa might be listening

The idea seems to be to turn Alexa, the company’s virtual assistant, from a dutiful aide under the user’s command to one with a more proactive attitude. For instance, the patent suggests: “If the user mentions how much the user would like to go to a restaurant while on the phone, a recommendation might be sent while the user is still engaged in the conversation that enables the user to make a reservation at the restaurant.”

Other proposals include making a note if you mention you like skiing, for instance, or hate to draw, and using those to update the company’s profile of you as a customer.

In a statement, Amazon said the patent was a proposal for the future, rather than a feature it is preparing to roll out. “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.” In fact, as the company wearily repeats almost weekly, Echo devices do not, and cannot, send voice recordings back to Amazon unless they have heard one of the preselected “wake words”, such as “Alexa”, “Echo” or “computer”. “We do not use customers’ voice recordings for targeted advertising,” Amazon added.

But the patent remains likely to plunge the company into the same conspiracist world that Facebook has been struggling to escape from for years. The social network has been plagued by rumours – again, repeatedly denied – that it eavesdrops on user’s conversations using phone mics to target adverts.

Unfortunately for both companies, they are too good at their jobs. When Facebook or Amazon uses the existing data they have on you – be that a decade of conversations with your friends, or a shopping history twice that long – to make recommendations that seem eerily good, it can be easy to jump to the assumption that they are listening in. The truth – that they know all they need to know about you from the information you voluntarily uploaded to their sites – is almost more unsettling.



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