Are Smart Speakers Planting Ads On Our Social Media Profiles?

NBC 7 Responds conducts an experiment to see just if there’s any correlation between the ads we see and the commands we give to smart speakers.

More people rely on voice activated devices such as Amazon Alexa, Echo-Dot, and Google Home for quick internet searches, to play music, turn on lights or control temperature, and monitor security in their homes. 

“We have one in nearly every room in the house,” said Rancho Penasquitos mother, Tara Northcutt. “My husband and kids they ask what the weather is they ask what their schedules are they ask questions they have a lot of fun with it and it's convenient.”

Cheryl Staus, also from Rancho Penasquitos, said she relies on her Amazon Alexa to get new recipes, listen to music while cooking for her family, and for making shopping lists.

“I use it mostly in the kitchen. I listen to music constantly so I tell her to play my pandora or my husband listens to...well, whatever he listens to,” said Staus.

“I also use the shopping list function because normally when I'm in the kitchen cooking I can't just stop and write something down so I'll tell her to put on my shopping list. And that's been one of my favorite things.” 

But do the conveniences these devices offer have any impact on our privacy?

After all, voice-activated devices are listening to your every word, waiting for commands. How could they not be in order to answer when you do speak to them?

And, just what do companies such as Amazon, Google, and others do with that data they collect, if anything?

“Talk about big brother,” said local IT expert, Mark Burgess. “You have continuous access to the sounds in your house from a device that's on the network all the time.”

San Diego State Professor of Information Management Systems, Murray Jennex, agrees.

“These devices and others are constantly recording data,” said Jennex. “This is called ‘big data’. Big data is data that comes in in massive amounts very fast.

And how often have you been discussing something when days later you see ads for that very same thing pop up on your social media page?

So, NBC 7 Responds decided to run an experiment of our own.

We asked five families to talk into their smart speaker and talk about an imaginary trip to Las Vegas. Those five families did so three times a day for three days straight.

The results: “We talked about Las Vegas every day and about making plans and wanting to go there,” said Cheryl Staus from Rancho Penasquitos. “And, we didn’t have anything pop up which was comforting.”

The same went for Tara Northcutt and her family.

“We were curious as to what the results would be,” said Northcutt. “We were pleasantly surprised to find that there was nothing, no ads, nothing.”

She added, “Had we realized that we installed something that was spying on us or listening to our private conversations they would be gone pretty quickly.”

Our findings came shortly after Bloomberg  reported that thousands of Amazon employees spread across the globe were paid to listen to voice recordings and those recordings are annotated in order to improve the smart speaker’s understanding.

A spokesperson for Amazon told NBC 7 Responds that the company does not use any recordings for marketing or ad purposes.

“We do not use voice recordings to target ads,” wrote the spokesperson from Amazon. “By default, Echo devices are designed to only capture audio after they detect the wake word. Only after the wake word is detected does audio get streamed to the cloud. No audio is stored or sent to the cloud unless the device detects the wake word.”

Customers, said the spokesperson, can review and modify their privacy settings here.

A spokesperson from Google also responded to privacy concerns and the appearance of pop-up ads after using smart speakers.

“Your interactions with Google Home and the Google Assistant don't influence the ads you see on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter feeds,” a spokesperson from Google told NBC 7 Responds.

“The Google Assistant is designed to put you in control and protect your privacy with each device interaction. The Google Assistant only sends audio to Google after your device detects that you’re interacting with your Assistant – for example, by saying ‘Hey, Google’ or by physically triggering the Google Assistant.”

Users of Google Home and Google Assistant can also opt out of personalized ad placement on the Google device help page.

But experts such as Jennex are not so sure it’s so easy.

“So any smart device such as Alexa or Echo is voice activated,” said Jennex just before the Amazon Echo asked for more information. “See. it's paying attention right now. It heard me mention its name. It's listening all the time.”

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