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Posted on Dec 1, 2017

Who’s Listening To Your Conversations?

Who’s Listening To Your Conversations?

A friend of mine has had an Amazon Echo for over a year now. Most people refer to it as “Alexa” because it connects to the voice-controlled intelligent personal assistant service that goes by the same name. To engage with it, you simple wake it up by saying the name “Alexa”.

It’s always listening. Just waiting to serve you….

Want to add milk to your shopping list? Say, “Alexa… add milk to my shopping list.” You’ll then receive verbal confirmation that it’s been added to your list. When you’re ready to go shopping, just say, “Alexa… what’s on my shopping list?” and you will receive an email of your entire list.

Or, if you want to know the temperature outside, just say, “Alexa… what’s the temperature outside?” You’ll immediately receive the current outside temperature (based on weather data available for your area).

The idea of a voice-activated computer – or even better, a digital personal assistant – is almost too good to be true. It’s like the original Star Trek where Captain Kirk spoke with the ship’s computer, as if it was a person.

We’ve been anticipating this for decades!

But is there a downside to having a digital personal assistant listening all the time? And what will this mean to privacy laws, and future boundaries for marketers in the collection of data?

An Insightful Experiment

To test the extent of the listening ear of Alexa, a friend of mine contrived a brilliant experiment.

He decided on a plan to discuss buying a minivan with his wife, where Alexa could overhear their conversation. Then he would measure how long it would take before seeing minivans advertised to him specifically.

Now, there is something important for you to know: my friend would be the LAST person to ever buy a minivan.

This was a perfect test as no automaker or dealer would ever choose to market a minivan to this couple.

The set up: After briefing his wife about the plan (outside the home), my friend and his wife initiate a healthy conversation inside their home, near Alexa, about the possibilities and options of buying a minivan.

Just one good, long conversation. That’s it.

The results: It only took 3 days before my friend began seeing ads for minivans on his Facebook account. And more than one ad. And they didn’t stop.

A week later, he was still seeing ads for minivans on Facebook!

Bottom line: Your digital personal assistant is ALWAYS listening. Be aware of what you say.

Also, recognize that Amazon is not the only company pursuing this technology. Google has Google Home. Apple is expected to launch HomePod in 2018, using its popular Siri.

Behind the Scene

If you’re wondering about the technical details that link this all together, it’s very much a “behind the scene” operation. Based on this little experiment:

  • Alexa is programmed to listen for key words and/or phrases that Amazon knows might be of interest to other marketers.
  • Amazon (and/or their Alexa partner) sell the data to interested marketers (i.e. auto manufacturers).
  • Marketers use the data to create targeted ads on Facebook (currently the most popular and easiest to execute) plus other social media channels.
  • For consumers with a Facebook account, Facebook can provide marketers a wealth of data to filter their ads and ensure they are targeting the right people.
  • As an additional note for Facebook users, recognize that Facebook collects lots of data about you, your preferences, your computer(s), smartphones, and other devices. Also remember that Amazon Echo – and Alexa – are on the same home wireless network.

To most consumers in America, this revelation is not shocking. The idea that marketers are monitoring and tracking us is old news. They’ve been doing it for years.

It’s a key reason why we have privacy laws.

But have marketers now crossed a new (low) line?

The Privacy Dilemma

I find it interesting to look back at an article I wrote over 5 years ago, Why marketers are to blame for privacy issues and what they can do about it. Here, I blame marketers as the root of the problem behind privacy issues – and the need for privacy statements. At the time, I suggested a better model would be for consumers to have an easier and simpler way to share data they feel is relevant – when and where they choose.

However, the Alexa experiment (as I now call it) proves that marketers are pushing the boundaries of privacy even further.

What part of our personal conversations at home can be considered “off limits” (if at all)?

What controls do consumers have to safeguard what they say in the privacy of their own home?

Potentially even more important, who else will have access to this data?

  • Insurance companies? What impact will this have on eligibility and claim settlements of health, property, and even life insurance?
  • The legal system? Who can have access, when, and why? There’s already been a murder case where police demanded Amazon turn over information collected from a murder suspect’s Echo. What conversations are protected and what’s not?
  • Government agencies? The damaging NSA leak revealed how governments have been spying on it’s own citizens for years. We can only imagine how some of these agencies are now drooling over the data that Amazon (and others) is collecting. Has Big Brother officially arrived?

We are now in a new kind of privacy dilemma.

On the one hand, we want the benefit of marketers only presenting us with relevant, timely, and personalized options. On the other hand, we don’t want our privacy betrayed.

Looking back over history, one thing is clear: we should NOT rely on marketers to protect our interests. That’s our personal responsibility. It’s time to get serious about it.