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Amazon Uses Alexa to Target Ads: Study

A new research report contends that Amazon uses voice data from Echo devices to target ads on its platforms and online. The report has received some pushback from the tech giant over claims that Amazon has violated its privacy policies with the ads.

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The researchers titled the report, “Your Echos are Heard: Tracking, Profiling, and Ad Targeting in the Amazon Smart Speaker Ecosystem.” It claims that Amazon and as many as 41 partners in the advertising and tracking services collect Alexa interaction data recorded by Echo smart speakers. The data is analyzed to determine what users are interested in and to target ads on the Echo and on the web. The researchers at the University of Washington, UC Davis, UC Irvine, and Northeastern University then claimed the demand for such data is incredibly high, with 30 times higher bids from advertisers compared to standard ads. The researchers built an auditing framework measuring online ad data collection, then created fake personas with specific interests to interact with third-party Alexa skills and find out what kind of ads they would start to see. The personas began seeing relevant ads on the web and in audio ads, which the researchers believed implied not only that Alexa was targeting ads, but that data was shared with multiple other parties in transcript form, not as raw audio.

Amazon Pushback

“We think that the best advertising is tailored to customers’ interests, which is why in some cases we will use the actions of customers, whether it’s shopping on Amazon or streaming on Amazon Music, to inform the ads we serve. For example, if you ask Alexa to order paper towels or to play a particular 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,” Amazon spokesperson Eric Sveum told Voicebot in an email. “This is not an atypical practice – the biggest advertising services in the world do this to best serve their users and their advertisers.”

Sveum described how customers can get ads based on their interests whenever they interact with premium content that has advertising on Alexa, such as music and radio streaming. That said, Sveum flatly denied any privacy practice violations. In particular, he pointed to the fact that users can choose to cut out the data collection should they choose through the advertising preferences page. They can also go to the third-party app and websites to adjust their advertising preferences there.

“We give customers the option to opt-out of these kinds of services if they like, at any time. As far as this specific research is concerned, it’s not accurate because it’s based on inaccurate assumptions of how Alexa works. For example, we do not sell customers’ personal information and we do not share Alexa requests with advertising networks, even though the report suggests that we do.”

Interactive Audio

Amazon hasn’t ignored the opportunities inherent in Alexa ads. A new feature for interactive audio ads debuted just last fall at its unBoxed event for advertisers. The voice assistant gained better connections to Amazon’s store and now lets listeners add the product being advertised to their cart, ask for more information about it, or just say “remind me” to get a follow-up notice about the product from Alexa. The upgrade aims to make the going from hearing the ad to buying the product as smooth and simple as possible, encouraging people to engage with a voice ad and buy the product without any frustration preventing the transaction.

The same announcement included news on a beta test for video versions of its interactive ads. The long-term strategy is to enable viewers streaming TV shows to make purchases with their voices in response to interactive ads. For the beta test, the interactive video ads are running solely through the Amazon Freevee (formerly IMDb TV) app embedded on Fire TVs. Alexa will respond to requests to add a product to their cart or send along more information to their email address. There’s also the interactive ad test Amazon is quietly running through third-party Alexa voice games. As detailed by Voicebot, someone playing Question of the Day on Alexa started hearing about a sponsor of the game in between rounds. Since developers are not allowed to embed ads in their skills, it seems likely a policy revision is on the way.


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