Careful What You Say Around Alexa: Someone Might Be Listening

Is someone listening to your private conversations?, Inc. AMZN has thousands of people on its payroll whose job it is to listen to voice recordings that its Echo devices pick up, according to a Wednesday Bloomberg report

What Happened

Bloomberg, citing multiple people who worked on Amazon's voice recording program, said thousands of employees globally are tasked with transcribing and annotating conversations captured by an Echo device. The purpose of the task is to better help Amazon understand human speech and understand commands. 

Full-time staff and contractors across the world often work nine hours a day and review up to 1,000 audio recordings per shift, two workers in Romania told Bloomberg. The workers also told Bloomberg that audio clips have sometimes included potential crimes — and been told it isn't Amazon's role to interfere.

Why It's Important

Amazon confirmed with Bloomberg in a statement that it collects and studies audio clips, although only an "extremely small sample" of recordings. The company said it does so to "improve the customer experience" and ensure the service "works well for everyone."

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

"The device detects the wake word by identifying acoustic patterns that match the wake word. No audio is stored or sent to the cloud unless the device detects the wake word, or Alexa is activated by pressing a button." 

What's Next

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

The determining factor in whether Amazon's actions represent a privacy concern as the determining factor might be how "cautious Amazon and other companies are in what type of information they have manually annotated, and how they present that information to someone," Schaub said. 

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Photo courtesy of Amazon. 

Posted In: Amazon EchoBloombergprivacysmart speakersNewsTechMedia