Wednesday 21 August 2019

Amazon admits that its staff do sometimes listen to your Alexa recordings

Alexa has proven a huge hit for the booming online retailer (David Parry/PA)
Alexa has proven a huge hit for the booming online retailer (David Parry/PA)
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Amazon has admitted that its staff listen to some recorded requests on Echo smart speakers in people’s homes.

The Echo device has become the best-selling smart speaker in Ireland with tens of thousands sold here and millions sold worldwide.

While Amazon says that the manual listening is done only for ‘quality control’ purposes to improve its systems’ understanding of competing pronunciations, it has emerged that staff are told to ignore distressed noises, such as assaults or cries for help.

Amazon’s Alexa voice system continually ‘listens’ for a chosen trigger word, such as “Alexa”, to initiate a request.

However, it was not previously know the extent to which Amazon workers actively listened to such requests.

In a statement, Amazon said that recorded voices cannot be linked by Amazon staff to customer accounts.

“We have strict technical and operational safeguards, and have a zero tolerance policy for the abuse of our system,” said the company statement. “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.”

However, some workers say that they hear disturbing things in the recordings.

According to a Bloomberg report on the issue, a number of Amazon staff tasked with listening to the recordings said they picked up what they thought was a sexual assault. Having raised the issue with the company, they say they were told that it wasn’t Amazon’s place to interfere. Instead, staff are allowed to share their experience in the internal chat room as a way of relieving stress.

Otherwise, much of the content listened to is “mundane”.

Amazon does not specifically say on its website that human workers will listen to recordings on Echo devices.

“We use your requests to Alexa to train our speech recognition and natural language understanding systems,” says the company’s list of frequently asked questions.

In Alexa's privacy settings, the company gives users the option of disabling the use of their voice recordings for the development of new features.

Online Editors

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