This Amazon 'Sniffer' Patent Sounds an Awful Lot like Spying to Me

By Tom Pritchard on at

If you have a smart speaker, like the Amazon Echo, you should already know that you have a device in your house that's always listening out for that key phrase "Alexa" so it can jump in to help you do whatever it is you can't (or won't) do for yourself. Amazon insists that the speaker doesn't record anything else you say before using the activation phrase, though a new patent suggests it's been considering expanding the number of keywords that will activate the Echo's digital ears.

The purpose of the patent is to activate new trigger terms within the Echo, working out what people "love" ,"like", or "hate" to better improve the recommendations offered by Amazon's retail site. The patent also mentions targeted advertising as one potential way to utilise this information, though Amazon has admitted its wariness of pushing adverts through the Echo in the past. Of course past reports have indicated the company has been considering it, but at the moment that is one of the key differences between Amazon's Echo and Google Home - with the latter coming under fire for some of its alleged advertising practices in the past.

It's important to mention that just because Amazon has filed the patent doesn't mean it will ever be implemented, with the retail giant confirming there are currently no plans to launch any new activation phrases. Which is a good thing, because having a machine randomly listen to snippets of your information without you even realising is seriously creepy. Given the uproar about Facebook and Cambridge Analytics, people are more aware that tech companies are keeping close tabs on everything they do, and monitoring actual conversations is taking things a step too far.

Nobody liked it when it was rumoured Facebook had been at it, and I doubt anyone will appreciate Amazon doing it either. Still, Amazon clearly wants to make it clear that it actually respects user privacy, releasing the following statement to the BBC:

"We take privacy seriously and have built multiple layers of privacy into our Echo devices.

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."

As the statement points out, patents take a long time to come in, so it's not like Amazon will have come up with this idea over the past couple of weeks. Whether it ever had plans to implement the feature or not, recent events are bound to make it think twice about perceived snooping - even if its plans are totally benevolent and will only be used to avoid recommending you a new vacuum cleaner immediately after you buy a new vacuum cleaner. [TechRadar]


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