Amazon Employees Listen to Alexa Recordings Many Think Are Private, Investigation Finds

Amazon employees can and do listen to recordings picked up by Alexa-enabled Echo devices, according to a new investigative report by Bloomberg.

Many customers have been too paranoid to pick up smart speaker devices like the Amazon Echo which are growing in popularity these days, fearing that they will be listened to. As a group of anonymous Amazon employees told Bloomberg for a new report this week, that is sometimes the case.

The powerful microphone on the Amazon Echo is constantly searching for voice commands, and there is a team of humans in place helping to train it to better understand human speech. Thousands of employees fill this role — including Amazon employees and contractors — and they listen to hours and hours of recordings from Alexa-enabled devices to improve the Echo's fluency in human speech.

Seven such employees spoke to reporters about their work. They said that they are spread throughout the world, sometimes in secretive, hard to recognize offices. They work nine hours a day and dissect as many as 1,000 recordings per day, and what they hear is shocking at times.

While listening for key words and phrases that might be directed at the Echo, employees said they heard everything from the mundane and embarrassing to the downright horrifying. One recalled hearing a woman singing off-key in the shower, while another heard a child screaming for help. Two employees said that they heard recordings of what they believed were sexual assaults.

The employees even admitted that they can and do share these recordings amongst themselves, either to laugh at the absurd parts or to commiserate over the disturbing parts. A spokesman for Amazon told reporters that there are procedures in place for employees to report distressing or criminal recordings.

"We take the security and privacy of our customers' personal information seriously," an company spokesman said in an emailed statement. "We only annotate an extremely small sample of Alexa voice recordings in order [to] improve the customer experience. For example, this information helps us train our speech recognition and natural language understanding systems, so Alexa can better understand your requests, and ensure the service works well for everyone."

"We have strict technical and operational safeguards, and have a zero tolerance policy for the abuse of our system," he went on. "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."

Two of the employees interviewed said that they did report potentially criminal recordings, but were told that it was not Amazon's job to interfere.

Of course, Amazon does not emphasize the fact that Alexa users might be heard by employees any time they are around an active device. In a list of frequently asked questions, the company says: "we use your requests to Alexa to train our speech recognition and natural language understanding systems." In the Echo's privacy settings, there is an option to disable the use of voice recording for the development of new features, however, the company says that people who take this option might still have a human analyst listening to their recordings.

"You don't necessarily think of another human listening to what you're telling your smart speaker in the intimacy of your home," said University of Michigan professor Florian Schaub who has researched privacy issues related to smart speakers. "I think we've been conditioned to the [assumption] that these machines are just doing magic machine learning. But the fact is there is still manual processing involved."

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"Whether that's a privacy concern or not depends on how cautious Amazon and other companies are in what type of information they have manually annotated, and how they present that information to someone," he added.

The report has increased concerns around the privacy and function of voice-enable devices, which continue to grow in popularity.