Amazon workers can hear what you say to Alexa

Mae Love
April 13, 2019

Amazon says it has internal procedures for when employees hear something disturbing, but when Bloomberg spoke to employees, they said they were told "it wasn't Amazon's job to interfere".

Amazon has repeatedly denied Alexa, which is an increasingly common feature in smartphones, speakers from third-party manufacturers and other connected devices as well as the company's own Echo smart speaker range, is always listening to user conversation, reiterating it only begins recording audio once it hears its default "wake word" "Alexa".

Amazon has admitted to the publication that it's employing human workers to annotate Alexa voice recordings. Workers review as many as 1,000 clips a day, most of which are mundane.

According to one Amazon spokesperson, an extremely small voice sample containing a specific keyword is listened to by Amazon workers.

Florian Schaub, a University of MI professor with expertise in privacy issues, told Bloomberg that many consumers assume smart speakers are "just doing magic machine learning" on their own.

Echo devices are created to detect only chosen wake words such as "Alexa", "Amazon", "computer" or "echo", a company spokesperson said in a statement to Benzinga.

It's not just Amazon that's turning to humans helpers to develop its digital assistant.

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The team that works on Alexa has a mix of contractors and Amazon employees who work from various countries including Boston, India, Costa Rica and Romania.

For anyone who uses Alexa and is concerned about these recordings, you can stop them from being listened to. "For example, we may use your commands, to Alexa, to train our systems for voice recognition and Understand natural language", it means General questions and answers on the Amazon page.

It's reported that the workers have a chat room for when they can't make out words or phrases and want help from colleagues. The workers were told by Amazon management that it wasn't their role to violate the privacy of their customers.

The company says they have "strict technical and operational safeguards" to protect privacy and a "zero tolerance policy" for the abuse by employees. "Employees do not have direct access to information that can identify the person or account as part of this workflow", the spokesman said. "After that, the data is stripped of its random identification information but may be stored for longer periods to improve Siri's voice recognition".

However, as any user of a smart speaker knows, ambient noise can be mistaken for the wake word, triggering the recording by accident. Alexa users can opt out of some audio sharing in their account settings, but the company says their snippets might still end up in the review queue.

Ironically, at Google, employees are only allowed access to a very small and distorted audio clip that is completely unidentifiable.

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