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Hey Alexa, is someone listening to us?

PW Bureau

Amazon employs thousands of employees who listen to voice recordings captured in Echo, transcribe them, and then feed them back into the software New Delhi: “Alexa, is someone else listening to us?” and “Do you work for the NSA?” are two questions that voice assistant users around the world are asking their devices frequently, hinting that they doubt someone could be eavesdropping on them. And somewhere, sometimes, someone is. According to a Bloomberg report, Amazon employs thousands of employees around the world who listen to voice recordings captured in Echo owners’ homes and offices, transcribe them, annotate them and then feed them back into the software in order to train Alexa and eliminate gaps in its understanding of human speech.

What Amazon doesn’t tell you?

In marketing materials, Amazon says that Alexa “lives in the cloud and is always getting smarter.” However, it glosses over the very crucial link in the process of building and improving software tools that involve human beings who teach the software. In its marketing and privacy policy materials, Amazon doesn't explicitly say that humans are listening to Alexa recordings. In fact, Amazon says in a list of frequently asked questions, “We use your requests to Alexa to train our speech recognition and natural language understanding systems.”
However, sometimes Alexa starts to record without any prompt at all. Irrespective of whether the activation is intentional or not, Amazon reviewers are required to transcribe it.
Alexa’s privacy settings allow users to disable the use of their voice recordings for the development of new features. However, sometimes Alexa starts to record without any prompt at all. Irrespective of whether the activation is intentional or not, Amazon reviewers are required to transcribe it. An employee said that auditors are required to transcribe as many as 100 recordings a day.

What are they listening to?

The team comprises of a mix of full-time and contractual employees who work in outposts across the world, from Boston to Costa Rica, India and Romania, and are made to sign a non-disclosure agreement barring them from speaking publicly about the programme.  A worker posted in Boston said that he mined accumulated voice data for specific utterances such as “Taylor Swift” and annotated them to indicate the singer.
An employee recalled the one time they picked up a conversation of possible sexual misconduct between two employees at a workplace
Occasionally, the device also picks up things that a person would rather keep private — like a woman singing off key in the shower, a kid crying for help or exchange between two people that could be upsetting or possibly criminal. An employee recalled the one time they picked up a conversation of possible sexual misconduct between two employees at a workplace. “We only annotate an extremely small sample of Alexa voice recordings in order [to] improve the customer experience… 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,” said an employee.