Amazon Files Patent That Would Allow Alexa To Listen In On Our Conversations

Facebook has been the subject of intense public scrutiny this week over how it breaches our privacy.

Meanwhile, and it quite an ironic turn of events, Amazon is looking to acquire exclusive rights to start using 'voice sniffing' technology to listen in on our private conversations.

In a patent filed in America, the retail giant explains how listening to us with "sniffer algorithms" could help them learn more about our likes and dislikes for the purpose of targeted advertisements. 

(Photo: Stock Catalogue via Flickr CC)

Amazon is the firm behind Alexa, a virtual assistant that responds to voice commands, which users can ask to play music, set alarms, get news and even demand a description of the weather.

Their new patent, however, outlines a much broader listening tool that would be capable of "capturing voice content, such as when a user speaks into or near a device" – and then identifying 'trigger words' that "indicate a level of interest in the user".

In response, Amazon said the patent did not represent any of their current plans and it also reaffirmed its commitment to user privacy, insisting the company took the issue very "seriously".

"We do not use customers' voice recordings for targeted advertising. 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"

But this has raised serious concerns online. In a tweet, data consultant and Guardian contributor Dylan Curran outlines several other "frankly insane" patents that have been filed over the last five years.

He claims Amazon and Google are seeking rights to "a system for identifying speakers in a conversation and building interest profiles for them".

This would look for statements like 'I love skateboarding' and use it to target you with skateboard ads.

Google has also filed patents that would allow it to monitor our showering habits, use smart cameras to figure out if we need new furniture and even a system for "inferring child mischief".

"Using audio and movement sensors, it could figure out if your son is covering himself with peanut butter on the kitchen table and alert you to such," Curran explains, "kinda cool, but creepy".

Facebook has also been the subject of speculation that it uses microphones built into devices to listen to our conversations and target them with relavant ads.

However, when asked by members of the US Congress during a committee appearance if the site used such a practice, its founder Mark Zuckerberg simply replied "No".

"You're talking about this conspiracy theory that gets passed around that we listen to what's going on, on your microphone and use that for ads. We don't do that," he added.

Writer and photographer from South London, UK. If you want to get in touch please email me at: matthew.kirby@konbini.com