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Spotify may listen back to listeners under new patent

Spotify thumbnail on tablet
February 10, 2021

In the highly competitive market of media streaming, it pays to know what customers want — sometimes before they even know they want it.

There’s a balance companies must strike, however, between flying blind and outright spying. Reliance on big data has enabled Netflix’s runaway success; it also has cost YouTube record amounts in legal damages.

Another online media giant is upping its ability to gather user data for the purpose of improving recommendations. Spotify’s 320 million-plus listeners may soon have the company listening back, if its new U.S. patent is implemented.

“Identification of taste attributes from an audio signal,” filed in 2018 and granted to the Swedish audio streaming platform on Jan. 12, describes the use of speech recognition to help identify a user’s music preferences.

The technology is aimed at minimizing the need for users to teach Spotify about their music tastes. The patent cited the “tedious” process of having a customer specify artists, genres, and shows they like to refine Spotify’s recommendation algorithm.

By automatically processing a user’s speech along with noise from their environment, Spotify can serve personalized recommendations that take into account their gender, age, location, and even emotional state.

Asked about the patent and its potential implementation, Spotify told Pitchfork they currently “don’t have any news to share” about the technology.

Facebook took a similarly guarded stance when reports emerged on its patent application for similar listening technology. The company said it would never implement the invention, and only filed for it “to prevent aggression from other companies.”

But this does not mean the type of technology patented by Facebook or Spotify is not already seeing widespread use. Smart speakers, like Google’s Nest or Amazon’s Alexa, are popular and somewhat notorious for their functionality. A patent filing by Amazon, describes a way for Alexa to listen in at all times, without requiring user activation.

Amazon’s approach to privacy continues to earn it criticism, though this has done little to slow the company’s monumental growth. Unfortunately, this could signal that Spotify has both much to gain and less to lose from being more aggressive with its data collection. This may be the way to go for tech companies at large, as long as users consent to being monitored.

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