Friday, 23 August, 2019

Why Thousands of Amazon Workers Are Listening to Your Alexa Exchanges

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Ginger Lawrence | 13 April, 2019, 05:58

The Alexa smart assistant answers your questions on your Amazon smart speaker.

"It's important that people understand it's not always listening", Daren Gill, Amazon's Alexa director told i in 2017.

When customers speak to Alexa, Amazon's artificial intelligence-powered virtual assistant, somebody may be listening in, according to a new report.

According to the report, workers can go through as many as 1,000 audio snippets in a nine hour shift, and while most of what they hear is mundane, sometimes it isn't.

Two workers told Bloomberg they heard a possible sexual assault.

When the reviewers hear private information that has been accidentally recorded, they are meant to flag it as critical data and move on to the next recording.

But no such permission can be granted as Amazon takes the security and privacy of its customers very seriously, says a company official. We only annotate an extremely small number of interactions from a random set of customers in order to improve the customer experience. There's also an opt out option available in the Settings section of the Alexa app where users can delete their saved recordings.

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Still, a screenshot viewed by Bloomberg reporters showed that the human-reviewed recordings "don't provide a user's full name and address but are associated with an account number, as well as the user's first name and the device's serial number", the report said.

She said employees do not have direct access to information that could identify the person or account and all information is treated confidentially, including the use of multi-factor authentication to restrict access as well as service encryption. Workers also allegedly use an internal chat room to share recordings they need help transcribing or recordings they find amusing.

Amazon emphasized that Echo devices are created to only activate when someone utters the wake word.

"User voice recordings are saved for a six-month period so that the recognition system can utilize them to better understand the user's voice", the white paper says. In case you're wondering why Alexa needs to record your Alexa requests at all, it's because Alexa needs to send those recordings to Amazon's cloud to process in order to give you a response.

Amazon, meanwhile, has also been in the spotlight for its policies surrounding its employees in its warehouses, after workers said the workplace was built around a culture of fear.

It's worth noting that Amazon employees can't trace back a specific recording to any specific user, but some privacy advocates would be quick to argue that that's besides the point.

Bloomberg News reports that thousands of Amazon employees stationed around the world do, in fact, listen along with Alexa. Apple and Google, who make popular smart speakers as well, aren't shouting it from the rooftops either, but both companies had mentioned previously that they use human reviewers as well.