Tag Archives: biometrics sweat

The Uses and Abuses of Alexa

Excerpts from the Interview with Robert Lewis Shayon author of “The Voice Catchers: How Marketers Listen In to Exploit Your Feelings, Your Privacy, and Your Wallet” published  at the Pennsylvania Gazette July 2021

There is  emerging industry that is deploying immense resources and breakthrough technologies based on the idea that voice is biometric—a part of your body that those in the industry believe can be used to identify and evaluate you instantly and permanently. Most of the focus in voice profiling technology today is on emotion, sentiment, and personality. But experts tell me it is scientifically possible to tell the height of a person, the weight, the race, and even some diseases. There are actually companies now trying to assess, for example, whether you have Alzheimer’s based upon your voice…

The issue is that this new voice intelligence industry—run by companies you know, such as Amazon and Google, and some you don’t, such as NICE and Verint—is sweeping across society, yet there is little public discussion about the implications. The need for this conversation becomes especially urgent when we consider the long-term harms that could result if voice profiling and surveillance technologies are used not only for commercial marketing purposes, but also by political marketers and governments, to say nothing of hackers stealing data.

There are hundreds of millions of smart speakers out there, and far more phones with assistants, listening to you and capturing your voice. Voice technology already permeates virtually every important area of personal interaction—as assistants on your phone and in your car, in smart speakers at home, in hotels, schools, even stores instead of salespeople. 

Amazon and Google have several patents centering around voice profiling that describe a rich future for the practice…But consider the downside: we could be denied loans, have to pay much more for insurance, or be turned away from jobs, all on the basis of physiological characteristics and linguistic patterns that may not reflect what marketers believe they reflect.

The first thing to realize is that voice assistants are not our friends no matter how friendly they sound. I argue, in fact, that voice profiling marks a red line for society that shouldn’t be crossed.

Breath and Sweat: the Biometrics of All Private Things

It is not just DNA that people scatter to the wind as they go about their business. They shed a whole range of other chemicals as well, in their breath, their urine, their faeces and their sweat. Collectively, these molecules are referred to as metabolites….

The most common way of analysing metabolite content is gas chromatography-mass spectrometry. This technique sorts molecules by their weight, producing a pattern of peaks that correspond to different substances….There are, however, a lot of information sources out there, in the form of publicly available metabolite databases. The databases themselves are getting better, too…. A study just published by Feliciano Priego-Capote at University of Cordoba, in Spain, for example, shows it is possible to extract much meaningful information from even a dried-up drop of sweat. “The day is coming soon”, observes Cecil Lewis, a molecular anthropologist at University of Oklahoma, who is studying the matter, “when it will be possible to swab a person’s desk, steering wheel or phone and determine a wide range of incredibly private things about them….


The police may be tempted to push the boundaries as well. The fourth amendment to America’s constitution protects against unwarranted searches and seizure of evidence. This means it is hard to force someone to give a sample. But if obtaining such merely requires taking a swab of a surface in a public place—perhaps a keyboard someone has just used—the 4th amendment is unlikely to apply.

That is not necessarily wrong, if it means more criminals are caught and convicted. But it needs to be thought about carefully, because many metabolites are sticky. Cocaine is a case in point. Studies have shown that as many as two-thirds of the dollar bills in circulation in America carry traces of this substance, which might thus end up on the fingertips of the innocent, as well as the guilty.

Excerpts from Metabolites and You, Economist, Feb. 15, 2019