Amazon’s Vocal Vault

Amazon wants to keep your secrets between you and your Alexa.

Photo via the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

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No one needs to know what things are said between you and your Alexa in the privacy of your home. Amazon agrees. 

The company filed a patent for “sensitive data control” for its smart speaker. Essentially, this system keeps users’ private, confidential or otherwise personal data safe by requiring an “authentication input,” including “voice recognition, facial recognition, fingerprint authentication, retinal scan, other types of biometric identifications, pin/password,” or others, for a user to access it. This way, your personal information is broadcasted just for you, rather than everyone at your annual family reunion. 

If the smart speaker has sensitive data to share, this could be presented to the user audibly without actually sharing the sensitive data, such as saying “you have a notification,” or sent as a message to a user’s smartphone. Then, once authenticated, the user would be able to hear the message, or if preferred, simply read it on their smartphone. 

For instance, if you have your medical or prescription information connected to your Alexa, rather than saying aloud “Your asthma medication is ready for pickup at the pharmacy,” this system will say “You have a medical notification. Please provide your authentication to receive it.” The user would then give a face scan on their phone, say a certain passphrase to authenticate their voice, or verify themselves in some other way, to receive their information. 

“In some cases, the user may not want other persons to know certain information that may be included in an output,” Amazon said in its filing. “ For example, the user may not want a communal, smart speaker device to simply make an announcement, for all who are nearby to hear, when a medical prescription is ready for pickup.”

Smart speaker developers are taking an interest in preserving user privacy. Amazon’s tech follows a similar logic to that of a recent filing from Google which laid out a family-friendly smart speaker that memorizes the voices of everyone in your household, aiming to keep personal information away from nosy house guests or young and inquisitive kids. 

Plus, this is far from the first time we’ve seen Amazon dig into speech recognition innovations: The company practically has a chokehold on the smart speaker market, and has filed patent applications for everything from sentiment recognition to a potential Alexa-Roomba hybrid.

However, this patent references medical data as its main example of confidential information throughout. While you typically wouldn’t think of Alexa when you think of things like prescriptions or doctors’ appointments, Amazon is very interested in growing its power in the healthcare industry. 

In its biggest step to gain footing, the company completed its $3.9 billion acquisition of One Medical in late February, gaining access to a customer base of more than 800,000 subscribers. Neil Lindsay, senior VP of Amazon Health Services, said in a statement on the acquisition news that the company is “On a mission to make it dramatically easier for people to find, choose, afford, and engage with the services, products, and professionals they need to get and stay healthy, and coming together with One Medical is a big step on that journey.” 

With the deal closed, don’t be surprised if One Medical subscribers’ data, like appointment times, prescriptions, or test results, can be accessed through their Alexas. At least with the tech in this patent, you can make sure your Tinder date doesn’t accidentally hear all about your prescription rash cream ready to be picked up at CVS. 

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