2018/11/15: At the beginning of October, Amazon was quietly issued a patent that would allow its virtual assistant Alexa to decipher a user’s physical characteristics and emotional state based on their voice. Characteristics, or “voice features,” like language accent, ethnic origin, emotion, gender, age, and background noise would be immediately extracted and tagged to the user’s data file to help deliver more targeted advertising.
The algorithm would also consider a customer’s physical location — based on their IP address, primary shipping address, and browser settings — to help determine their accent. Should Amazon’s patent become a reality, or if accent detection is already possible, it would introduce questions of surveillance and privacy violations, as well as possible discriminatory advertising, experts said.
Like facial recognition, voice analysis underlines how existing laws and privacy safeguards simply aren’t capable of protecting users from new categories of data collection — or government spying, for that matter. Unlike facial recognition, voice analysis relies not on cameras in public spaces, but microphones inside smart speakers in our homes. It also raises its own thorny issues around advertising that targets or excludes certain groups of people based on derived characteristics like nationality, native language, and so on.
voice-based accent detection can determine a person’s ethnic background, it opens up a new category of information that is incredibly interesting to the government.
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, makes it possible for the government to covertly demand such data.