Amazon Employees Listen To Alexa Voice Recordings for Improvement Purposes

The Echo Input turns dumb speakers into Alexa-capable smart ones.                  Tyler Lizenby  CNET

Amazon's voice assistant Alexa is used by millions across the world in their smart homes to play games or to listen to music. That's perhaps the most common fear associated with devices with microphones, and a huge part of what's fueled increased scrutiny on how companies handle data collected by their smart products. This revelation won't surprise those who understand machine learning, but Amazon doesn't directly acknowledge in its marketing and privacy policy materials that humans listen to Alexa's recordings.

Amazon employees have been secretly listening back to and mocking the things that customers ask Alexa and are sharing recordings of them in internal chat rooms, it has emerged.

Amazon "human" workers are listening to conversations to improve its responses says Bloomberg in a new report. Global News notes that Amazon employees are not able to come forward and discuss what is happening because those staff involved have signed non-disclosure agreements. They said they worked "nine hours a day, with each reviewer parsing as many as 1,000 audio clips per shift".

The work is mostly mundane. When the team can not ascertain what a particular word is, they use internal chat rooms to share files with each other. In such cases, the employees are given a procedure to follow.

According to a Bloomberg report on the issue, a number of Amazon staff tasked with listening to the recordings said they picked up what they thought was a sexual assault. However, the system often activates by mistake, triggered by mondegreen, background noise or even a working TV set. Listeners who hear users discussing sensitive data like bank details or names are told to tick a box marking the file as "critical" and move on - which sounds fine, until one thinks of those "critical" files as red flags for some unscrupulous person looking to prey on Amazon customers.

"We take the security and privacy of our customers' personal information seriously", an Amazon spokesman told Bloomberg in an emailed statement.

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Alexa users can disable their voice recordings for developing new features. The device's serial number and the user's account number are typically left in.

It also confirms that the company "associate your requests with your Amazon account to allow you to review your voice recordings, access other Amazon services and to provide you with a more personalised experience". Quickly after that, Google launched its own version called Google Home.

In the USA, smart speaker ownership doubled year-over-year from 28% in 2017 to 55% in 2018, according to Business Insider Intelligence data. Google and Apple both have humans reviewing conversations with the Google Assistant and Siri respectively, to improve the digital assistants and make sure they are interpreting requests correctly.

The camera on the £119.99 ($129) Echo Spot, which doubles up as a "smart alarm", will also probably be facing directly at the user's bed.

It's not just Alexa listening when you talk to her.

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