- April 12, 2019
Amazon’s Alexa Is Eavesdropping On Customers
Most of us had already suspected that the fashionably sleek Echo speaker sitting on our kitchen counter or nightstand with the soothing pulsating mood-light, might be silently listening to our every word.
A new report by Bloomberg has finally turned our suspicions into fact; Amazon workers are indeed listening in to what we’re saying. Moreover what we instruct “our own personal assistant Alexa to do.”
According to Amazon the unauthorized (by the customer) eavesdropping is necessary for teams of Amazon employees stationed around the world to transcribe recordings, then sending them back into Echo’s software, which then erases any gaps or flows within speech patterns, thus giving Alexa the ability to understand speech.
Sometimes workers can even hear chatter in the background while Alexa is on, but employees on the team are not authorized to speak about their work, Bloomberg reported.
Those authorized to eavesdrop reportedly sign nondisclosure agreements and listen to up to 1,000 audio clips per nine-hour shift. However not all are full-time employees of Amazon, some are independent contractors, which is a bit disconcerting.
One of the troubling sidebars to unauthorized eavesdropping by Amazon employees is the potential risk of overhearing a crime in progress. Two workers in Romania told Bloomberg that they were told it isn’t Amazon’s job to interfere. However, this opens up numerous issues of responsibility, accountability and potential liability for both Amazon and those individuals listening in.
On the flip of the equation, “human-nature” always plays a key role when eavesdropping, therefore it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Amazon employees sometimes use internal chat-rooms to share recordings they find amusing.
Another far more troubling aspect of unauthorized eavesdropping by Amazon employees are conversations in the home regarding personal and financial information, such as banking details, social security numbers and medical information that might be picked up. Of course, Amazon is attempting to put a “happy face” regarding the Bloomberg report, emphasizing that when their employees come across extremely sensitive information, they’re supposed to make the audio file as “critical data” and move on…really?
“We take the security and privacy of our customers’ personal information seriously. We only annotate an extremely small number of interactions from a random set of customers in order to improve the customer experience,” an Amazon spokesperson told Fox News in a written statement. “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.”
The spokesperson added, “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. 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.”
“We use your requests to Alexa to train our speech recognition and natural language understanding systems,” the company says in a list of frequently asked questions. Alexa users can disable their voice recordings for developing new features.
However Amazon’s Alexa isn’t the only device listening in; there are others like Apple’s Siri and Google Assistant, which also have human eavesdroppers listening in on their customers. However, both claim that their recordings aren’t linked to personally identifying information.