Amazon Employs Thousands of People to Listen to Your Alexa Conversations

The Echo Input turns dumb speakers into Alexa-capable smart ones.                  Tyler Lizenby  CNET

According to Bloomberg's report, Amazon employs "thousands" of people across the world tasked with improving Alexa's voice-recognition features.

Two "reviewers", the employees who listen to and transcribe the sound, were interviewed by Bloomberg.

Two unnamed sources told the publication that in several cases they picked up potentially criminal and upsetting activities, accidentally recorded by Alexa.

"We take the security and privacy of our customers' personal information seriously", an Amazon spokesman said in a statement emailed to Bloomberg.

Amazon also explained that, by default, its Echo speakers only begin sending audio to the cloud when it is activated with the press of a button or the device hears the chosen wake word, such as "Alexa" or "Amazon". This revelation today at least partly confirms the validity of their concerns.

Bloomberg interviewed seven separate sources about the program, some of whom said Amazon's workers are expected to analyse approximately 1,000 audio clips per nine-hour shift. Bloomberg found that Apple also has a human team that checks whether Siri's interpretation of requests matches what was asked by users.

Recordings sent to the human teams do not provide full names, but they do connect to an account name, device serial number, and the user's first name to clips.

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The spokesperson added that employees can't directly access identifying information about the people or accounts associated with the recordings, among other protections for the data, and "zero tolerance" for any abuse.

The help page of the Amazon website dedicated to Alexa states that Amazon may "use your requests to Alexa to train our speech recognition and natural language understanding systems". Staffers have also raised the alarm when overhearing distressing situations like a child calling out for help, and instances where a sexual assault might have occurred.

The report claims that sometimes the workers can hear chatter in the background of the recordings they are working on, but the report says that the workers aren't allowed to comment on what they do.

But Amazon could have been more explicit about the role of human reviewers. The teams use internal chat rooms to share files when they need help parsing a muddled word-or come across an amusing recording.

Amazon says it has internal procedures for when employees hear something disturbing, but when Bloomberg spoke to employees, they said they were told "it wasn't Amazon's job to interfere".

The reports raise questions as to the legality of failing to report a potential crime, as well questions about the possible ramifications for Amazon employees who could well be distressed by hearing this kind of recording. Apple uses a similar system of human workers to improve Siri, but it doesn't include any identifying data with the recordings.

But we have often read about some of the glitches faced by Echo smart speakers and how Alexa can listen to the conversations of its owners and then share it with another user.

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