Economy

Amazon Reportedly Has Thousands of Workers Listening to Alexa Recordings

Amazon Reportedly Has Thousands of Workers Listening to Alexa Recordings

Listened to by voice review employees worldwide, some of the clips feature intimate private moments in customers' lives - and even record harrowing crimes. Bloomberg reports that one of these workers will review as many as 1,000 clips in a nine-hour shift.

Those recordings are "transcribed, annotated and then fed back into the software", Bloomberg wrote, as part of an effort to continue improving Alexa's ability to recognise speech without human intervention.

"Amazon characterised the number of recordings that actually are analysed by humans as "an extremely small sample" in a statement to Bloomberg, adding that it was exclusively for the goal of "[improving] the customer experience".

Bloomberg says Amazon has employees listening to audio clips in offices in Boston, Costa Rica, India, and Romania. It happens with the help of an Artificial Neural Network (ANN), human workers, and a non-disclosure agreement.

'Employees do not have direct access to information that can identify the person or account as part of this workflow.

"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.

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Alexa is certainly not the only "voice assistant" to use humans in order to better serve humans - Apple's Siri, arguably the AI who started it all, has human helpers who evaluate whether its responses make sense in response to user commands - but Siri's recordings are stored for six months and linked only to a random identifier, an Apple security white paper explains.

The company says they have "strict technical and operational safeguards" to protect privacy and a "zero tolerance policy" for the abuse by employees. In other cases, the workers said they use internal chat rooms to share recordings they find amusing.

Concerns have been raised by some in the past that smart speaker systems could be used to constantly listen in to user conversations, often with the aim of targeting users with relevant advertising.

The report indicates, however, that the content in those recordings can be quite serious: Two workers that Bloomberg spoke to detailed what they believed to be a recording of a sexual assault. The workers were told by Amazon management that it wasn't their role to violate the privacy of their customers.

Amazon is still largely trusted by consumers, but that could change with too many privacy snafus. The devices are always hearing, looking out for the wake word, but they're not always listening and recording. If during the transcribing, the workers discover a recording with personal information, like banking details, they are reportedly supposed to mark the recording as "critical data" and move on. They were apparently told that they couldn't do anything about it, because it's not Amazon's job to interfere.

Both Apple and Google also use voice recordings to improve their assistant products, and both companies strip all identifiable information about the individuals in the recordings.