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Do we need a ban on voice profiling technology?


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Concerns raised about smart devices and privacy to date have been somewhat limited; they focus on the risks associated with the technology capturing the literal contents of conversation. While that’s certainly a cornerstone of the exchange, another valuable dynamic has been obscured and is not well-understood: the biometric surveillance of absorbing your voice’s “footprint.”

Today, smart speakers [and other devices] slurp our audio, primed by “wake words” like “Hey Siri,” “Alexa,” “Ok, Google,” etc.  

This is the subject of Professor Joseph Turow’s new book, “The Voice Catchers: How Marketers Listen In to Exploit Your Feelings, Your Privacy, and Your Wallet,” which offers the first in-depth examination of the voice intelligence industry. He documents that much of the research that fuels the “voice profiling industry” is happening in customer support centres, which are largely out of the public eye. He makes the point that while thinkers battle it out re: data collection and use, marketers are a few steps ahead and innovating quickly: 

“Policy experts, privacy advocates, corporate executives, and academics are arguing fiercely about the legality and ethics of data mining by online advertisers and the government. Meanwhile, retailers are doing the same thing and attracting comparatively little attention.”

*I recently interviewed Turow at the Toronto Public Library, and you can watch here.

Watch the TPL Interview

His book “The Aisles Have Eyes,” (2016) documented how Americans are entering a “third” stage of American retailing that is characterized by hyper-competition and data-driven profiling. Companies like Target are collecting data about consumers through their website and app, in addition to knowing what people purchase. It uses this information for its own marketing purposes. But Target can also profile people based on what you say on blogs, chat rooms, and social networks. 

Voice profiling is just beginning in marketing and other areas of life, where analysts can infer your age, weight, height, gender, and health status just from your voice. Turow warns that it could be quickly applied to democracy. This new biometric era of marketing is an emerging industry in which policymakers can make a meaningful difference.

Turow points to patents that Amazon holds in order to illustrate where this technology is going: “voice-based determination of physical and emotional characteristics of users,” which could help Alexa infer that you have a cold, and “User identification using voice characteristics,” which could monitor unconscious reactions to products. Facebook has confirmed that they are also developing a voice assistant

Need a quick example?

A Canadian company, Symend, is using voice recognition technology to minimize bill delinquency.  Symend is “digital engagement platform that uses behavioural science and data-driven insights to empower customers to resolve past due bills.” It advises customer support agents how to respond to “changing customer sentiment,” as extrapolated from information embedded in someone’s voice. 

Why it matters: Discrimination 

The dark side of voice profiling is discrimination and labelling. Targeted advertising is by definition discriminatory. Turow has written that the Future of Shopping is More Discrimination (2017).  

Wait, what is Clubhouse’s monetization model? 

Turow expressed concern that despite Clubhouse’s evolving privacy policy, voice data will be scraped from the app and monetized in some way. 

What can you do as a consumer? 

The “always listening” mode is similar to the default of “always on” for location tracking services. You can disable this mode on your phone and re-consider the utility of your smart speakers at home (I basically only used ours to ask about the weather).

What’s the advocacy landscape like?

Emergent. Recently, Access Now called on Spotify to abandon voice recognition technology (here’s the letter). They are asking the company to make a public commitment to never use, license, sell, or monetize its new speech-recognition patent technology. Otherwise, with low awareness/appreciation of how the tech can manipulate you, things mainstay quiet.

What’s the legislative landscape?

The State of California passed a statute (January 2016 - Connected Televisions Statute) that prohibits the sale of voice recordings for advertising purposes and restricts the ability of law enforcement to require that surveillance features be included. BUT this only applies to smart televisions. In 2019, California considered a sectoral privacy bill regulating smart speakers, AB-1395.

Some states have laws directed at making the use of speech data more transparent:

“Other states, including Vermont, have passed laws intended to safeguard consumers around the issue of speech data. Vermont now obligates businesses that collect and sell or license personal data to third parties to reveal which data they are collecting from consumers and allows consumers to opt out of this data collection. Additionally, bills or bill drafts related to consumer data privacy have been filed or introduced in at least 25 states and Puerto Rico.”

Stronger data privacy protection laws are part of the puzzle, but clarity around speech data would be welcome. Perhaps Canada’s Centre for Regulatory Innovation could take on this work. 

What is the role for policymakers?

Turow wants to see regulators press pause on the application of this information, given that it is inherently discriminatory. 

“It’s important for government leaders to adopt policies and regulations that protect the personal information revealed by the sound of a person’s voice.

“One proposal: While the use of voice authentication – or using a person’s voice to prove their identity – could be allowed under certain carefully regulated circumstances, all voice profiling should be prohibited in marketers’ interactions with individuals. This prohibition should also apply to political campaigns and to government activities without a warrant.

“That seems like the best way to ensure that the coming era of voice profiling is constrained before it becomes too integrated into daily life and too pervasive to control.”

Given the legislative silence on the collection and application of this information, there is a rare opportunity for Canada to lead when it comes to regulating emerging uses of technology. Should we take a second to consider whether these activities are appropriate and tolerable in our society, or wait until the horse is way out the gate? Policymakers have to find a new, anticipatory voice.

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ICYMI: In the 2nd episode of the Public Policy Forum’s “Policy Speaking” podcast, I spoke to Emily Guendelsberger and Sean O’Brady about what policymakers can do when your boss is an algorithm. 🎙️

Listen to Policy Speaking


Read More:

Vass Bednar is the Executive Director of McMaster University’s new Master of Public Policy in Digital Society Program.