Spotify Is Listening to You in More Ways Than You Think

Natasha Matta
Apr 19 · 3 min read
Image Credit: Evan Greer

Streaming platform Spotify has amassed 155 million premium subscribers and 345 million active users monthly in over 170 countries and is expanding its services to 85 more countries in 2021. However, it has received harsh criticism for underpaying musicians and artists, continuing the illegal practice of Payola for big labels, and concealing its payment structures. The United Musicians and Allied Workers Union (UMAW) spearheaded a Justice at Spotify campaign last October with demands, such as increasing the average streaming royalty from $.0038 USD to a penny per stream, and the group protested outside of Spotify offices on March 15.

Most recently, the company filed an alarming patent to use artificial intelligence for emotional surveillance and manipulation, listening to users’ conversations, analyzing the sound of one’s voice, and curating targeted ads and music for one’s emotional state. The technology claims to identify “emotional state, gender, age, or accent” in forming its recommendations.

Fight for the Future describes what could soon be a terrifying reality: “Imagine telling a friend that you’re feeling depressed and having Spotify hear that and algorithmically recommend music that matches your mood to keep you depressed and listening to the music they want you to hear.”

Access Now, a nonprofit organization that defends and extends the digital rights of people around the world, sent a letter to Spotify dissecting how this new initiative would be extremely invasive and endanger users’ safety and privacy. It cites four major concerns: emotion manipulation, gender discrimination, privacy violations, and data security.

  • Emotion Manipulation: Monitoring emotional state and making decisions off of that creates a dangerous power dynamic between Spotify and its users and leaves the door open for emotion manipulation.
  • Gender Discrimination: Extrapolating gender through one’s voice and conversations will undoubtedly discriminate against non-binary and transgender individuals.
  • Privacy Violations: The artificial intelligence system would be “always on,” constantly monitoring what users are saying, analyzing their tone and language, and collecting sensitive information about users’ lives.
  • Data Security: Constantly collecting such personal and sensitive data about users’ personal lives would likely make Spotify a target of hackers, stalkers, and government authorities.

“There is absolutely no valid reason for Spotify to even attempt to discern how we’re feeling, how many people are in a room with us, our gender, age, or any other characteristic the patent claims to detect,” says Isedua Oribhabor, a U.S. Policy Analyst at Access Now. “The millions of people who use Spotify deserve respect and privacy, not covert manipulation and monitoring.”

Artificial intelligence is pervaded by racial and gender biases, and emotion recognition software like what Spotify is proposing is considered “a racist pseudoscience” at best. This technology poses a grave threat to independent artists and creators as well: what happens “when music is promoted based on surveillance rather than artistry,” Fight for the Future asks?

Evan Greer, a transgender/genderqueer singer, songwriter, activist, and Deputy Director of Fight for the Future, released the song and music video “Surveillance Capitalism,” part of the larger album Spotify is Surveillance. The song aims to raise awareness about Spotify’s emotion surveillance and manipulation, garner support for Fight for the Future’s petition demanding Spotify abandon the patent and promise to never use this invasive technology on its users, and support the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers by donating 100% of the artist proceeds from the song.

Sign the petition.

Encode Justice

Building a movement for human rights and justice under AI.

Natasha Matta

Written by

Covering the intersections of STEM and social justice.

Encode Justice

Encode Justice is a youth-led coalition championing justice under AI through policy, advocacy, research, education, content creation, and organizing.

Natasha Matta

Written by

Covering the intersections of STEM and social justice.

Encode Justice

Encode Justice is a youth-led coalition championing justice under AI through policy, advocacy, research, education, content creation, and organizing.

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