A new report has revealed that Amazon has thousands of employees and contractors listening to audio clips that have been recorded with the company’s Echo voice assistant devices. While this may come as a shock to some, it’s been assumed for a very long time that Amazon and other companies with voice assistants have been using real people to analyze small samples of user data in an effort to improve voice recognition and capabilities of their services.
According to Bloomberg, Amazon has full-time employees and contractors on the project. While the audio clips that are manually transcribed are generally mundane, some of the workers mentioned that they often listen to clips which were recorded when Alexa was inadvertently triggered. In at least two instances, Amazon workers say that they listened to clips which could have been sexual assault, but were unable to do anything about it since no identifying information is provided to them and because Amazon’s stance is to not interfere.
While all the details reported by Bloomberg have not been corroborated, Amazon did admit that it does have employees and contractors who are listening in on select audio clips recorded when users are talking to Alexa.
“We take the security and privacy of our customer’ personal information seriously. We only annotate an extremely small sample of Alexa voice recordings in order [to] improve the customer experience. For example, this information helps us train our speech recognition and natural language understanding systems, so Alexa can better understand your requests, and ensure the service works well for everyone.
We have strict technical and operational safeguards, and have a zero tolerance policy for the abuse of our system. 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.”
Now that we know for sure the requests we pose to Amazon’s Echo speakers could be heard by someone at Amazon, does that change your view on smart speakers powered by Alexa? There isn’t any evidence (yet) that Google is doing the same with Google Assistant, but we honestly wouldn’t be surprised if they are.