A Team At Amazon eavesdrops on your talks with Alexa

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A team at Amazon that includes both full-time employees and contractors listens to people’s audio snippets recorded by devices with the company’s Amazon Alexa assistant installed, according to a Bloomberg report.

Amazon has human reviewers in locations including Boston, Costa Rica, India and Romania who listen to hundreds of Alexa recordings every day. The workers, some of whom spoke anonymously with Bloomberg, annotate the recordings to help Alexa get better at what she does. Recordings are listened to, transcribed, annotated, and added back into the software as part of Amazon’s effort to help Alexa better respond to voice commands.

Two workers told Bloomberg that they’ve heard recordings that are upsetting or potentially criminal, and while Amazon claims to have procedures in place for such occurrences, some employees have been told it’s not the company’s job to interfere.

“Sometimes they hear recordings they find upsetting, or possibly criminal. Two of the workers said they picked up what they believe was a sexual assault. When something like that happens, they may share the experience in the internal chat room as a way of relieving stress. Amazon says it has procedures in place for workers to follow when they hear something distressing, but two Romania-based employees said that, after requesting guidance for such cases, they were told it wasn’t Amazon’s job to interfere.”

Amazon said that an “extremely small” number of Alexa voice recordings are annotated and that there are measures in place to protect user identity.

“We take the security and privacy of our customers’ 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.”

Alexa users concerned with the data that’s being collected and used by Amazon should make sure to enable all privacy features and uncheck the option for letting Amazon save Echo recordings.

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