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How voice profiling determines how to exploit your feelings, privacy and your wallet

By Alma Fabiani

Jun 11, 2021

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Whenever you call a number and hear: “This call is being recorded for training and quality control,” it isn’t just the customer service representative they’re monitoring. It can be you, too. When it comes to your shopping experience, as you dial in, the computer of an artificial intelligence company hired by the store is then activated. It accesses previous data on the speaking style you used when you phoned other companies the same software firm services.

You’re in luck, the computer has concluded you are ‘friendly and talkative’. Using predictive routing, it connects you to a customer service agent who company research has identified as being especially good at getting friendly and talkative customers to buy more expensive versions of the goods they’re considering to buy. In other words, voice profiling allows them to exploit not only your feelings but also your privacy and your wallet.

If you don’t believe me, check out the company CallMiner and exactly what it offers on its website. “Reveal patterns and insight at scale to understand customers, better meet their needs and expectations, and drive improved loyalty and satisfaction,” is just a nicer way to say what I just stated above.

When conducting research for his forthcoming book The Voice Catchers, author Joseph Turow went through over 1,000 trade magazines and news articles on the companies connected to various forms of voice profiling. “I examined hundreds of pages of US and EU laws applying to biometric surveillance. I analysed dozens of patents. And because so much about this industry is evolving, I spoke to 43 people who are working to shape it,” Turow wrote in an article published on Big Think.

“It soon became clear to me that we’re in the early stages of a voice-profiling revolution that companies see as integral to the future of marketing,” he continued. And although he precised how, for now, we’re still in the early stages of that revolution, it’s clear to see that things are already well in motion. Thanks to the public’s embrace of smart speakers, intelligent car displays and voice-responsive phones, marketers say they are on the verge of being able to use AI-assisted vocal analysis technology to achieve unprecedented insights into shoppers’ identities and inclinations.

Soon enough, they’ll be able to circumvent the errors and fraud associated with traditional targeted advertising. At least, that’s what they’re willing to share with us. Top marketing executives Turow interviewed said they expect their customer interactions to include voice profiling within a decade. Let’s look at what marketers say they need voice profiling for, and what they don’t want to share just yet.

Part—and part is the key word here—of what attracts them to this new technology is a belief that the current system used to create unique customer profiles (and therefore targeting them with personalised offers and ads) has drawbacks that simply can’t be ignored any longer. Too often, customer data isn’t up to date, profiles are based on multiple users of a device, names can be confused and, well, people lie.

As a result, these create barriers to understanding individual shoppers—and selling more crap they probably don’t need. Voice analysis, on the other hand, is seen as a solution that makes it nearly impossible for people to hide their feelings or evade their identities, Turow explains.

Here’s where marketers’ real interest in voice profiling comes into play—in customer support centres, which are largely out of the public eye. Since they’ve been introduced to us as the little helper we all need and deserve, hundreds of millions of Amazon Echoes, Google Nests and other smart speakers have infiltrated our homes. Smartphones also contain such technology.

You’ve probably heard rumours of this before, but all these smart speakers are listening—just not in the way you might think. They don’t listen to your conversations to then present you with ads of what you might have mentioned as per se, but they’re tied to advanced machine learning and deep neural network programmes that analyse what you say and how you say it.

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The user agreements of Amazon and Google (as well as many other companies that people access routinely via phone app) give them the right to use their digital assistants to understand you by the way you sound. Amazon’s most public application of voice profiling so far is its Halo wristband, which claims to know the emotions you’re conveying when you talk to relatives, friends and employers.

Although these Big Tech companies assure customers that they’re not using this data for their own purposes—yet—their patents offer a clear vision of what’s coming. From deciphering a shopper’s voice to measure unconscious reactions to products to collecting gender and age information based on the pitch of voice signatures throughout a house, the future is nearing.

As scary as this sounds, you probably haven’t even considered the worst part yet: the impact voice profiling could have on both political campaigns and government activities.