Your smart assistant is listening, but does that impact the ads you see?

Nov 24, 2023, 5:00 AM

person either turning on or off their Alexa system...

Let’s take a deep look at how Alexa and Siri have the ability to use your conversations to create profiles. (Pexels Photo)

(Pexels Photo)

Think of everything you do online — and in real life, too — that says something about who you are. Your likes, clicks, hobbies and activities all add to the wealth of data points companies already have on you.

What about your conversations with Alexa or Siri? How is that data used? Let’s take a deep look at how they use your conversations to create profiles.

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Sizing you up

Consumer Reports and researchers at Boston’s Northeastern University created fake persons to interact with Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant and Apple’s Siri. This is data we all need to pay attention to.

They purposely asked the assistants questions designed to give away key user information. Think of asking about apartments near Boston. That checks a box that the user is a renter, not a homeowner.

How accurate were the profiles?

Google was hit or miss, like when it tagged users who asked about Disney tickets for a family as “single.” Not very helpful, but it says something nice about your privacy.

Amazon creates profiles based on shopping habits, not necessarily what you say to Alexa. Unless you’re gabbing with her specifically about shopping, you can chat away without Alexa adding the info to its marketing data. That’s nice to know.

Siri is the least gossipy of all the assistants. Requests to Siri aren’t tied to your Apple ID or used to build a marketing profile. Apple does have an ad network, but it creates a profile on you from non-voice data (like everything you’ve told the company and what you do inside apps or on the web) to target ads.

Why does all this matter?

When researchers used a married homeowner persona to ask Google for restaurant recommendations, it suggested Eddie V’s Prime Seafood, a high-end chain. When the same question was asked under a single persona, it offered a more affordable place. (If you’re single and want higher-end options, ask Google questions about Gucci loafers and Range Rovers.)

Unlike Google, Alexa didn’t change answers to basic questions based on tags and categories. Amazon does use interactions to serve ads, though. For example, asking Alexa for recipe ideas might get you a targeted ad for pots and pans.

The clear winner for privacy lovers is Siri. Apple doesn’t use Siri interactions to build profiles or change answers.

Your to-do voice privacy checkup

Based on what you’ve told Google Assistant and your other activity, Google makes it easy to see what it knows about you.

  • Sign in to the My Ad Center page.
  • Click on Manage Privacy on the left-hand side and scroll down to Categories used to show you ads.
  • You’ll see how Google categorizes you with the option to change anything you don’t like or don’t want your ads based on.

With Amazon, it’s a little trickier. You need to submit a request and it could take days for Amazon to email you the information, so don’t hold your breath.

  • Log in on a computer, hover your cursor over Account & Lists and tap Account.
  • Scroll down to the Data and Privacy section and click Request Your Information.
  • Select Alexa and Echo Devices from the drop-down menu and tap Submit Request.

Use an iPhone or Mac? Your profile isn’t based on Siri interactions. That doesn’t mean you don’t pass along a ton of other information.

Keep your tech-know going

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Your smart assistant is listening, but does that impact the ads you see?