New lawsuit claims Amazon is using Alexa to target ads

Is Alexa a spy for Amazon’s targeted ads?

  • A new trial alleges that the popular talking assistant included in the Seattle-based tech giant’s Echo and other smart speakers collects voice data from unwitting customers that Amazon then uses to target ads at them.

Driving the news: The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle last week, seeks certification as a class action that, if approved, could potentially include millions of smart speaker customers as plaintiffs.

What they say : “Amazon’s admission that it does in fact use Alexa voice prompts to inform targeted advertising placed by Amazon across its vast advertising network is shocking, especially after years of repeated disavowal of such use,” according to the complaint.

  • “Amazon customers have agreed to allow Alexa into their homes for a very specific and limited purpose – to respond to and perform voice commands and queries,” the lawsuit states. “Nothing in Alexa’s Terms of Service or Privacy Policy discloses or obtains permission to use their voice recordings for advertising purposes.”

Why is this important: Amazon now dominates an ever-growing smart speaker market, holding nearly 70% market share with more than 80 million of its devices operating in more than 50 million homes. according to the latest research by Consumer Intelligence Research Partners.

  • Its Alexa voice assistant also works with other brands of smart speakers.
  • If the lawsuit’s claims are accurate, tens of millions of American households — some with multiple smart speakers — are vulnerable to unintended ad targeting via a device intentionally brought into homes.

The other side: “We don’t comment on ongoing litigation,” Lisa Levandowski, a spokeswoman for Amazon, told Axios on Wednesday.

  • As noted in the lawsuit, Amazon has repeatedly denied using Alexa voice data to target ads to customers, including in statements to NBCthe New York Times and The conversation podcast.

Yes, but: Despite denials from Amazon, scholars from the University of Washington and three other universities published a research paper in April conclude otherwise.

  • The researchers created characters to use Echo devices and has built a framework to measure Amazon’s collection, use, and sharing of interaction data from them.
  • They also tracked ads targeted to each person, concluding that Amazon was “processing voice data to infer user interests” in those ads.
  • The researchers further found that “Amazon’s inference of advertising interests from users’ voice interactions appears to be inconsistent with their public statements.”

In response at a report from The Register About the research, an Amazon spokesperson denied the findings, but said, “If you ask Alexa to order paper towels or play a song from Amazon Music, the record of that purchase or this song may inform relevant advertisements served on Amazon or other sites where Amazon places advertisements.”

  • The lawsuit calls the statement a “stunning” admission, but noted that Amazon still “dodges” the researchers’ findings, which identified targeted ads through Alexa interactions that did not result in a purchase.

The context: The lawsuit names as plaintiffs and potential class representatives James Gray, an Ohio man, and Scott Horton, a Massachusetts resident, both of whom have four Alexa-enabled devices in their homes, according to the lawsuit.

  • Each man was “subjected to unauthorized use” by Amazon “of voice data collected by Alexa to target him with advertisements on numerous occasions without his consent,” the lawsuit states.
  • The lawsuit cites four causes of action against Amazon, including invasion of privacy, human rights violation, and violations of fair use in contract and in Washington’s consumer protection law.

To note : A similar class action was filed last year in Illinois.

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