Thousands of Amazon Employees Are Listening to Your Alexa Recordings
Earlier this year, Amazon announced that it has sold more than 100 million devices that ship with its voice AI assistant software, Alexa, around the world, including with its popular Echo smart speaker. What many Alexa users may not be aware of, though, is that for Alexa to respond to command prompts, it has be listening continuously — and people employed by Amazon are listening.
Though Amazon often promotes Alexa as an AI that exists wholly in the cloud, continually teaching itself to better accept users’ voice commands, the company employs thousands around the world to listen to and transcribe recordings made by Alexa-enabled devices. These transcripts are then fed back into Alexa with the aim to improve its speech recognition.
These employees are required to be extremely tight lipped about their work, all signing off on a comprehensive non-disclosure agreement. However, Bloomberg has spoken with several people on the condition of remaining unnamed.
They paint a picture of a relatively uneventful work day, where it is typical for each worker to make about 1,000 recording transcriptions during their 9-hour shifts. However, transcribers occasionally come across odd or humorous audio clips which they will sometimes share with other employees for a laugh. In other cases, private moments will be captured by Alexa, ranging from a user singing in the shower to more intimate moments.
In still others, something potentially criminal has been picked up; in one instance, a transcriber believed they heard a sexual assault taking place — when it was brought up with superiors, they were told it was not Amazon’s business and to move on.
In a statement to Bloomberg about their annotation practices, Amazon says they “take the security and privacy of our customers’ personal information seriously,” adding that there are safeguards in place to protect users from being identified by employees.
Even if Amazon’s use of Alexa recordings is purely benign — questionable, considering the internet giant’s proclivity for aggressively expanding its sales and services — what happens when other actors gain access to this type of sensitive data?
Take this possible scenario, for example: On the behest of the Trump administration, in its ever expanding efforts to suss out and deport undocumented immigrants, Amazon is required to turn over these transcripts to government transcribers to be used for possible ICE arrests.
Here’s another: Given the frequency of data breaches that occur among everyone from Apple to Facebook, what if malicious hackers were able to obtain Alexa data? This would open a very disturbing can of worms for Alexa users — some who could face, for example, doxxing or blackmail over recordings made of intimate or compromising moments in a private space. Or, perhaps, a situation in which Alexa devices are used in business settings, hackers might find an opportunity to engage in corporate espionage.
Alexa is generally believed to not be the most used AI voice assistant service in the, with both Google, Microsoft and Apple having their own similar products shipped on their smartphones and other devices.
There are many foreseeable and unforeseeable outcomes from the rapidly growing popularity of services like Alexa — and it’s time for governments to take action to protect consumers.
This article was originally published on Care2.com on April 27, 2019.