Anyone who doesn’t use, or at least hasn’t heard of, voice assistants belongs to a very exclusive club. For many, it’s easier to ask Google, Alexa, or Siri a question rather than typing in a search query.
However, as with any futuristic technology, care is called for when it comes to voice helpers. We’ve already posted about how these eerily Orwellian smart devices could potentially threaten privacy. Today we discuss a related technology: ads on voice helpers. What are they, and what could possibly go wrong? Read on.
The future of Big Advertising
About a year ago, the Google Home voice assistant was involved in an interesting story. A device owner used the My Day feature, but after hearing the expected a weather and traffic reports as well as news and to-do items, he was informed that Beauty and the Beast had opened in local movie theatres. Music from the new film played, followed by a prompt to learn more about it.
— brysonmeunier (@brysonmeunier) March 16, 2017
A video of the device playing the ad quickly spread online. Surprisingly, a Google spokesperson denied that the audio snippet constituted advertising, issuing a rather strange statement: “This isn’t an ad; the beauty in the Assistant is that it invites our partners to be our guest and share their tales.” While people were scratching their heads over this Delphic pronouncement, Google quickly deleted the message from all Home devices.
It’s rumoured that Google didn’t receive any money from Disney for the message, so it seems like it was all a bit of an experiment. Nevertheless, if voice helper ads are to happen, that’s how they would most likely look.
Earlier this year, it was reported that Amazon was in talks with several major companies, including retail giants Procter & Gamble and Clorox, about the placement of voice ads in response to directly relevant user queries.
In theory, from a sellers’ perspective, such ads are far juicier than the usual contextual advertising. For a start, it won’t feel like advertising, but rather like friendly advice to the user. What’s more, the user won’t scroll past it as in Facebook, but rather will listen to the dulcet tones of the electronic assistant all the way through.
And if one considers that Amazon Echos are flying off the shelves and into people’s living rooms, voice assistants do indeed represent an advertising revolution. For its part, Amazon has stated that it has no intention of adding ads to Alexa. At least for the time being…
What about personal data?
From what we know of Amazon’s negotiations with potential advertisers, it seems that the technology behind voice advertising will resemble what is already used for contextual advertising in online search. This technology is based on processing big personal data and essentially selling it on to advertisers.
Google and Amazon are hardly rookies in this field; both are skilled harvesters of all sorts of info, and data collection technologies are advancing even more rapidly than new devices. At the same time, users have long suspected major companies of employing somewhat dubious technologies including voice processing and targeted advertising based on the data generated from it.
Many have complained that after mentioning something out loud and then going online, they saw a contextual ad for the very thing they were just talking about. Facebook and Google, the companies most often accused, deny doing so. Yet the technology turns out to be wholly implementable, and continuous eavesdropping does not drain a phone’s battery too much. On devices with a permanent power supply, that is even less of an issue.
The data that Google and Amazon collect about you, based on your online behaviour, is already more than enough to show you relevant ads. Combine that with the smooth-tongued delivery of the voice assistant informing you that your favourite cookies (of the edible variety) are just around the corner, or a new store just opened nearby selling the perfect wine to complement the T-bone steak you plan on cooking this evening, and those ads become not only relevant, but also highly persuasive. What’s more, voice helpers are already capable of placing orders for their owners. Add the ability to eavesdrop and analyse what’s been heard, and the technology becomes downright creepy.
Will advertising deprive us of choice?
In our brave new reality, much of what we consume, we pay for with our personal data. Voice ads — personalized, trustworthy, relevant, and perhaps even useful — could be a real gold mine for the tech giants. But it’s not yet known how often we will hear such ads and to what extent they will dictate our consumer choices.
So the best line of defence at present is to be careful about what we hand over to data-munching technology, and what permissions we give.
Kaspersky Lab’s security solutions offer Web-tracking protection, limiting the amount of information tech Goliaths can harvest about you. To enable this feature, go to Kaspersky Internet Security‘s settings and turn on the Private Browsing component. As for voice assistants, you can:
- Turn off the microphone (Amazon Echo and Google Home have physical buttons for this), so as to limit the access to your data.
- Block purchases or password-protect them in your account settings, so at least you won’t unwittingly buy anything using voice commands.