Hey Alexa, what do Amazon workers know about me?

On 10 April 2019, an investigation by Bloomberg, disclosed that thousands of Amazon employees around the world are listening in on Amazon Echo users. In order to help improve the Alexa digital assistant powering its line of Echo speakers, the team listens to voice recordings captured in Echo owners’ homes and offices. The recordings are transcribed, annotated and then fed back into the software to help Alexa’s understanding of human speech. In marketing materials, Amazon says Alexa “lives in the cloud and is always getting smarter.” However, Amazon has a team which comprises a mix of contractors and full-time Amazon employees who work in outposts from Boston to Costa Rica, India and Romania who process these sound recordings. 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. 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.

“You don’t necessarily think of another human listening to what you’re telling your smart speaker in the intimacy of your home,” said Florian Schaub, a professor at the University of Michigan who has researched privacy issues related to smart speakers. “I think we’ve been conditioned to the [assumption] that these machines are just doing magic machine learning. But the fact is there is still manual processing involved.” In contrast, in an email statement, an Amazon spokesperson said, “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.”

As per Amazon’s website, no audio is stored unless Echo is activated by pressing a button or detects the wake word which is usually “Alexa” or “Echo” but can be changed to anything the user desires. But sometimes Alexa begins recording without any prompt and the audio files start with a blaring television or unintelligible noise. Whether or not the activation is mistaken, the reviewers are required to transcribe it. One of the people said the auditors each transcribe as many as 100 recordings a day when Alexa receives no wake command or is triggered by accident.

See further analysis: https://privacyinternational.org/educational-case-study/2817/did-you-sign-amazon-alexa-experiment-time-check-those-opaque-settings