Amazon Defeats Claims Over Alexa Ad Targeting

A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit claiming that Amazon wrongly targets ads to Alexa users based on their interactions with voice-controlled devices.

In a decision issued late last week, U.S. District Court Judge Barbara Rothstein in the Western District of Washington ruled that the allegations in the complaint, even if proven true, would not show that Amazon misrepresented its policies regarding Alexa's voice data.

“The use of voice data for advertising purposes is contemplated in the applicable policies,” Rothstein wrote in an order throwing out the complaint.

The ruling comes in a class-action complaint filed last June, when Ohio resident James Gray and Massachusetts resident Scott Horton alleged that Amazon uses “Alexa-collected voice data” for ad targeting.

They raised several claims, including that Amazon violates users' privacy, and that it engages in misleading and unfair conduct.



They sued soon after researchers from the University of Washington, University of California-Davis, University of California-Irvine, and Northeastern University posted the paper “Your Echoes are Heard: Tracking, Profiling, and Ad Targeting in the Amazon Smart Speaker Ecosystem,” which concluded that Amazon “processes voice data to infer user interests.”

That report does not allege that Amazon secretly listened to conversations, or directly shared voice recordings with third parties.

After the paper was posted, Amazon said it “is not in the business of selling data,” and doesn't share Alexa requests with ad networks.

“Similar to what you'd experience if you made a purchase on or requested a song through Amazon Music, if you ask Alexa to order paper towels or to play a song on Amazon Music, the record of that purchase or song play may inform relevant ads shown on Amazon or other sites where Amazon places ads,” the company stated in response to the paper.

Amazon urged Rothstein to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that the allegations -- even if proven true -- would show only that the company targets ads based on transactions people make via Alexa, as opposed to recordings of users' conversations.

The company added that there's a difference between voice recordings and transaction records.

“When a customer uses a physical keyboard to make a purchase on, the data from that transaction is not 'derived from' the customer’s typing, nor would anyone argue that Amazon is 'using' that person’s keystrokes,” Amazon wrote in papers filed with Rothstein last October. “Similarly, if someone types a purchase command into the Alexa app, the transaction data associated with that command is captured and might be used for advertising (as Amazon widely discloses).”

Rothstein said in her ruling that Alexa's terms of service incorporate Amazon's privacy policy, which discloses that Amazon uses personal information for interest-based ads.

“The applicable policies do not conceal Amazon’s use of Alexa-captured voice data for advertising,” she wrote.

The dismissal was without prejudice, meaning that the users can attempt to reformulate their allegations and bring them again.

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