What You Tell Alexa Doesn’t Stay On Alexa: Amazon Workers Are Listening

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Written by Ann Brown
Alexa
Photo by Status Quack on Unsplash

You may think of your voice assistant as a helpful tool to help you run your home and life. But did you know someone might be listening to your requests, especially if your assistant is named Alexa?

Amazon.com Inc., which owns Alexa and its line of Echo speakers, has employees who hear almost everything you ask Alexa. “The team listens to voice recordings captured in Echo owners’ homes and offices. The recordings are transcribed, annotated and then fed back into the software as part of an effort to eliminate gaps in Alexa’s understanding of human speech and help it better respond to commands,” Bloomberg reported.

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Seven people who have worked on the project told Bloomberg that a team examines the request asked of Alexa and Alexa’s responses — all in an effort, according to Amazon, to improve the software.

Amazon uses both outside contractors and full-time Amazon employees who work anywhere from Boston to Costa Rica, India to Romania. According to two workers at Amazon’s Bucharest office, these employees work nine hours a day and reviewers listen to about 1,000 audio clips per shift.

While listening to these recordings, employees sometimes hear conversations that could be possibly criminal. In fact, two workers said they heard what seemed like a sexual assault. But when something like this happens, workers are legally told it wasn’t Amazon’s job to interfere.

“We take the security and privacy of our customers’ personal information seriously,” an Amazon spokesman said in an emailed statement. “We only annotate an extremely small sample of Alexa voice recordings in order [to] improve the customer experience…Employees do not have direct access to information that can identify the person or account as part of this workflow. All information is treated with high confidentiality and we use multi-factor authentication to restrict access, service encryption and audits of our control environment to protect it.”

One problem is that in its marketing and privacy policy materials, Amazon doesn’t inform Alexa users that humans are listening to recordings. Instead, in its list of frequently asked questions, it says: “We use your requests to Alexa to train our speech recognition and natural language understanding systems.” This doesn’t outright say they are listening in on conversations.

Amazon does give users the option of disabling the use of their voice recordings for the development of new features. However, Amazon says even for those who opt out of that program could still have their recordings analyzed by hand.