Amazon may give app developers access to Alexa audio recordings

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Amazon is considering granting third-party app developers access to transcripts of audio recordings saved by Alexa-powered devices, according to a report from The Information today. The change would be aimed at enticing developers to continue investing in Alexa as a voice assistant platform, by giving those app makers more data that could help improve their software over time. Amazon’s goal, according to The Information, is to stay competitive with more recent entrants in the smart speaker market, like Apple and Google.

Amazon declined to comment on its future plans for Alexa data-sharing policies. However, a company spokesperson told The Verge, “When you use a skill, we provide the developer the information they need to process your request. We do not share customer identifiable information to third-party skills without the customer’s consent. We do not share audio recordings with developers.”

As it stands today, Amazon records audio through Alexa devices like the Echo home speaker and the new Echo Look camera and Echo Show monitor, however only after a “wake word” like “Hey Alexa” is used to prime the software. These devices send these audio clips to an Amazon-owned server where they’re analyzed to produce a near-instantaneous response from Alexa, but where they’re also stored so Amazon can improve its digital assistant through artificial intelligence training techniques.

The data is also kept in the event it’s request by law enforcement, however Amazon fought police over what it saw as an overly broad request for audio logs on a murder suspect last year. (The company relented in April of this year and handed over the logs when the suspect voluntarily said he was willing to provide them.)

Amazon does not hand this data over to developers, The Information says, because such a move would undermine Amazon’s commitment to user privacy. However, because Google, which makes the most popular Echo competitor currently on the market, does give developers access to this data, Amazon’s Echo and Alexa divisions feel they are at a disadvantage, the report states. Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment on its data-sharing policies for the Home speaker.

For instance, some developers fear that without audio logs of requests, like those related to a food delivery order, they won’t know exactly what went wrong if the order is ultimately incorrect and the customer unhappy. According to The Information, Amazon does give some data over to a select few “whitelisted” developers, though how that system works is unclear.

These types of murky privacy and platform competition debates are only going to heat up as the smart speaker market continues to crowd. Both Apple and Microsoft are entering the market later this year, and each ecosystem will only be as strong as both the digital assistant it houses and the robustness of the developer support it courts. For Amazon, which arrived early on the scene and stands to reap most of the benefits as the smart speaker market balloons in value, keep developers from jumping ship or opting out of Alexa is important — more so, it seems, than a thorny consumer privacy hurdle.

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Update at 2:56PM ET, 7/12: Added statement from Amazon.

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