Stories

What your smart devices are listening for

A pair of Amazon Echo smart speakers. Photo: Joby Sessions / T3 Magazine via Getty Images

Amazon and Google, the leading sellers of digital assistants like Alexa, have each "filed patent applications that outline an array of possibilities for how devices like these could monitor more of what users say and do," the N.Y. Times reports.

Why it matters: "That information could then be used to identify a person’s desires or interests, which could be mined for ads and product recommendations."

  • "In one set of patent applications, Amazon describes how a 'voice sniffer algorithm' could be used on an array of devices, like tablets and e-book readers, to analyze audio almost in real time when it hears words like 'love,' 'bought' or 'dislike.'"
  • "A diagram ... illustrated how a phone call between two friends could result in one receiving an offer for the San Diego Zoo and the other seeing an ad for a Wine of the Month Club membership."
  • Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog, a nonprofit advocacy group: “When you read parts of the applications, it’s really clear that this is spyware and a surveillance system meant to serve you up to advertisers.”
  • What's next: "The Electronic Privacy Information Center has recommended more robust disclosure rules for internet-connected devices, including an 'algorithmic transparency requirement' that would help people understand how their data was being used and what automated decisions were then being made about them."