Are they listening?

Do you ever get that strange feeling that the ad you just saw was something that you were discussing only a minute ago?  Or, have you ever sat in a meeting and Siri suddenly buts in?

If you’re a yes to either of these, you are not alone!

As technology advances there are more devices that have the ability to listen to our conversations. The big unknown is, are they always listening and recording our conversations?

At a pivotal moment in time when there is a global spotlight on all things to do with trust in the digital world obviously brought to the forefront by the now infamous Facebook Cambridge Analytica data breaches, consumers are right to be asking this question. As the growth and popularity of voice activated devices increases its clear this topic is only going to gain more traction.

The leading smart speakers in the market are Amazon Echo, Google Home and Apple HomePod.  And yes, they need to be listening in some capacity so they can hear what are called the wake-words.  These are the trigger to get them to respond to the query, for example “Ok, Google” or “Hey Siri”

Both companies say they only start recording your commands when the wake-words are said. Once this happens it’s then transmitted to the servers to analyse the questions, so they can be answered. This data is encrypted within the cloud services.

Now the question on everyone’s lips, “Are these devices using my conversations to serve me ads?”

A friend in her mid-20’s recently told me that she was served an ad for a nursing home not long after discussing the fact they had a grandparent recently move into one.  It’s not surprising that the ad struck them as a little odd, given my friend wouldn’t naturally be a target for advertising a nursing home.

As a digital-media geek I would love to think that the industry is full of clever people working with  amazing technologies to ensure that all media is harmoniously providing the most accurate targeting whilst delivering effective results.  But, I am a realist and perhaps there is truth to the suspicions, like that of my friend and the nursing home advertising.

So, what do the likes of Amazon, Google and Apple have to say about such examples?

The short answer is, they have denied they’re listening all the time.  And we’re left scratching our heads on what is going on behind the curtain.

Is it possible that these devices do listen outside of their programmed boundaries and wake-words and will do more in the future.

Take Amazon’s latest patent.  It plans promote Alexa from virtual assistant to a dutiful aide with an expansive list of wake-words.  So if you’re discussing a restaurant on the phone, a recommendation could be sent to you immediately to make a reservation.  A simple example, but one that demonstrates that the possibilities are endless and potentially quite annoying!

Despite all this, it seems that Australian’s are willing to overlook this possible breach in favour of the ultimate in convenience.  Research from Telsyte predicts Australia’s Internet of Things industry will be worth $4.7 billion by 2021, and households will boast 311 million internet-connected devices, or more than 30 in every home.

That’s a stack of opportunities for devices to be listening.  And perhaps there’s a group of consumers out there that simply don’t care that they’re being listened to, or don’t believe their conversations are worth listening to.

We as advertisers know that they probably are worth listening to and provide many opportunities for the ultimate in relevant messaging.  But we need to question if we’re willing to be part of this potentially invasive technology or if its over-stepping the mark.


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