A technology Amazon developed to improve Alexa could help governments violate people’s civil rights.
In October, Amazon patented a technology that it says would allow its AI assistant to analyze a user’s voice and infer everything from their health status to their likely nation of origin — capabilities that governments could use against people, warn privacy experts in a newly published story by The Intercept.
It’s easy to see how Amazon could benefit from the technology described in the patent. Alexa could hear that a user coughs between words and offer to order flu medicine for them. If the AI believes the user is speaking in Chinese-accented English, it could suggest that they purchase a device that streams Chinese-language television in real time.
The real trouble could arise if a government decided it wanted access to this information Amazon would collect on users, surveillance and cybersecurity lawyer Jennifer Granick told the Intercept.
“Let’s say you have [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] go to one of these providers and say, ‘Give us all the subscription information of people who have Spanish accents’… in order to identify people of a particular race or who theoretically might have relatives who are undocumented,” she said. “So you can see that this type information can definitely be abused.”
Of course, it’s important to keep in mind that a patent approval is no guarantee that Amazon — or any other company — will ever actually create this accent-detecting technology. And there’s no evidence of a government expressing interest in the technology, either.
Still, it’s always worth considering the potential unintended consequences of any new technology — especially when the company wielding that tech is one with as wide of a reach as Amazon.
READ MORE: Amazon’s Accent Recognition Technology Could Tell the Government Where You’re From [The Intercept]
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