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Alexa Recordings are Listened to by Thousands of Amazon Employees

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Amazon’s incredibly popular Alexa-powered smart speakers are in the homes of millions, but there has always since been some concern of bringing a device to your home with the capability of listening to everything you say. Turns out, those concerns were completely warranted.

According to a report from Bloomberg, Amazon employs thousands of people whose jobs are to listen to up to 1,000 audio clips per nine-hour shift. These audio clips reportedly include background chatter while Alexa is on. The voice review program is supposed to allow Amazon to train their ever-developing Alexa AI to better serve its customers and the products they sell.

These employees hail from all over the world, and all have signed nondisclosure agreements barring them from publicly speaking about the program. As reported by Bloomberg, some of the employees have said they have heard recordings bordering on potentially criminal, with one employee saying they believe they heard the recording of a sexual assault happening.

When they hear such things, the employees are encouraged to share their experience in an internal chat room as a way to relieve stress and cope with their feelings. However, two Romani-based employees have said Amazon makes it explicitly clear it is not their job to interfere with anything they hear.

Though this seems like a gross violation of personal privacy, Amazon seems to think otherwise. “We take the security and privacy of our customers’ personal information seriously,” an Amazon spokesperson said in an emailed statement to Bloomberg. Amazon says they only listen to and annotate a very small percentage of Alexa recordings, and any personal information like bank account numbers or addresses are supposed to flagged by employees as being “critical data” and deleted.

The purpose of the entire process is to gather data to help the algorithm that powers Alexa to better understand the intricacies of human language. According to Amazon, no audio from Alexa is stored unless Echo detects the wake word or is activated by pushing a button. However, this completely contradicts the statements that have come out of this report, with employees saying they have been able to hear background chatter.

Amazon is not alone in employing teams of people to listen to snippets of audio from AI-powered digital assistants. Apple’s Siri and Google’s Assistant both have teams that listen in to help improve its AI’s machine learning, though both of these programs reportedly do not listen to audio with personal identifying information.

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