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Hey, Alexa, what can you hear? And what will you do with it?



One application details how audio surveillance can help to detect that a child is "mischief" at home by first using speech patterns and pitch to identify the presence of a child, it said in an application. A device could then try to sense movement while listening to whispers or silence, and even program a smart speaker "to give a verbal warning".

A separate application for personalizing content for individuals, considering their privacy, found that voices could be used to tune a speaker's mood based on the "volume of the user's voice, the detected respiratory rate, crying, and so on" and the user's voice medical condition due to the detected coughing, sneezing, etc. to determine.

The same application describes how a device might work "Detect a T-shirt on the bottom of the user's wardrobe with Will Smith's face and combine it with a browsing history looking for Mr. Smith" for a movie recommendation that shows, "You seem to like Will Smith. His new movie is set in a theater near you. "

In a statement, Amazon said the company had" taken privacy seriously "and" did not use customers' voice recordings for targeted advertising. "Amazon said that" a number of forward-looking patent applications are exploiting the potential of new technology "and that they take several years to receive and not necessarily reflect current developments in products and services. Google said it has not "rawly" used audio to extrapolate moods, medical conditions or demographic information. "The company added," All the devices that came with the Google Assistant, including Google Home, were developed in terms of user privacy. "

Technology companies are applying for a dizzying number of patents every year, many of which are never used and years are even possible. Still, Jamie Court, the president of Consumer Watchdog, a nonprofit advocacy group in Santa Monica, California, said, "A study on some of the patent applications in December said," When you read parts of the applications, it's really clear that this is spyware and a surveillance system that offers advertisers. "

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A diagram included in an Amazon patent application showed how a phone call between friends could be used to identify their interests.

Credit
United States Patent and Trademark Office

The companies, Mr. Court added, "will basically find out how our domestic life is qualitative."

Google cited Consumer Watchdog's claims as "unfounded" and said, "Prospective product announcements should not necessarily be inferred from our patent applications."

A recent Gallup poll found that 22 percent of Americans used echo devices such as Google Home or Amazon. The proliferation of smart speakers means that gadgets, some of which contain up to eight microphones and a camera, are placed in kitchens and bedrooms, answering questions, controlling devices, and making phone calls. Apple has recently launched its own version called HomePod

But many consumers are becoming increasingly nervous that tech companies are eavesdropping on them to deliver targeted advertising no matter how often they deny it. The recent revelations that a British political data company, Cambridge Analytica, has misappropriated the information of 50 million Facebook users have only increased public awareness of the collection and use of personal information.

Facebook had actually planned to unveil the new Internet-connected home products at a developer conference in May, according to Bloomberg News, which reports that the company has partially submerged this idea in response to its recent impact.

Both Amazon and Google have these devices with Alexa and Google Assistant stores voice recordings of users only after they have been deliberately triggered. Amazon Echo and its newer smart speakers with screens use lights to show when streaming audio to the cloud, and consumers can view and delete their recordings in the Alexa smartphone app or on the Amazon website (though they are warned online they could "degrade" their experience). Google Home also has a light that shows when it's taken, and users can also see and delete the audio online.

According to Amazon, voice recordings can help meet requests and improve their services. Google says the data helps to learn it over time (19659019) But the ecosystem around voice data is still evolving.

Take the thousands of third-party apps designed for Alexa called "Skills," which can be used to play games and subdued lights, or give cleaning hints. While Amazon said that users' actual shots were not shared with third parties, Alexa's Terms of Use state that they may share the content of their requests or information such as their postal codes. Google says it will "generally" not provide audio for third-party content, but it could send transcriptions of what people are saying.

And some devices have already shown that they can hold more than users expect. Google was a little embarrassed last fall when a batch of Google Home Minis distributed at corporate events and journalists almost always recorded.

In a more rigorous example, detectives investigating a murder in a house in Arkansas in 2016 sought access to audio on an echoing device. Amazon resisted, but the footage was eventually shared with the defendant James Bates' permission. (One judge later dismissed Mr. Bates' murder charges on the basis of separate evidence.)

Kathleen Zellner, his lawyer, said in an interview that the echoed more than it should. Mr. Bates told her that it lit up regularly without being prompted, and recorded conversations that had nothing to do with Alexa commands, including talking about football in a separate room.

"It was just extremely sloppy" Activation took place, "said Ms. Zellner.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center has recommended more robust disclosure rules for devices with Internet connectivity, including an" algorithmic transparency requirement "that would help people understand How Their Data Was Used What Automated Decisions Were Made About It

Sam Lester, the Center's Consumer Protection Officer, said he believed the capabilities of new smart home appliances showed the need for US regulators to become stronger

"Many of these technological innovations can be very good for consumers," he said. "However, it is not the responsibility of consumers to protect themselves from these products, nor is it how they themselves are responsible for protecting themselves from the security risks b to protect food and drugs. That's why we founded a Food and Drug Administration years ago. "

Correction: March 31, 2018

Due to a processing error, an earlier version of this article misrepresented the role of Jeff Bezos in Amazon's Super Bowl ad trying to figure out what to do if Alexa lost her voice; he did not fill it.

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