Bloomberg disclosed earlier this week that the tech industry titan has workers listen to recordings of people talking to their digital assistants. The Silicon Valley firm has staffers transcribe Alexa’s interactions with consumers, annotate any issues, and submit corrections to the application to fine-tune its speech recognition.
Amazon workers in America, Costa Rica, India, and Romania review up to 1,000 clips a shift to improve the autonomous agent’s programming. The contractors and full-time employees typically help the system understand the context of certain user searches. They also aid Alexa in decoding garbled human commands.
However, Bloomberg also noted the company’s transcriptionists have a private chat room where they can share audio clips. Amazon intended for its workers to use the application to crowd decipher particularly inscrutable recordings, but they also use it to share user data.
So, if you’ve ever said anything embarrassing into an active Alexa-enabled device, a stranger might’ve had a good laugh at your expense.
What Happens When Alexa Records a Crime
Disturbingly, two Amazon workers stated they heard what they believe to be a sexual assault when transcribing audio files. The corporation has protocols in place for employees to report overhearing possible crimes. However, Romanian staffers were told it wasn’t the company’s place to interfere in its customers’ lives.
Indeed, the tech firm has maintained its neutrality in the past when its products have captured evidence of a crime. Last year, a New Hampshire judge ordered the company to turn over an Amazon Echo’s recordings after its owners were murdered in their home.
Similarly, Arkansas prosecutors asked the e-commerce platform for the recordings Echo made in a home where a corpse was discovered. Amazon initially declined on First Amendment grounds but complied after the device’s owner consented to police reviewing his data.
Amazon Says it did Nothing Wrong
Unsurprisingly, Amazon didn’t issue a mea culpa for having its employees review recordings of its customers without their expressed consent. The corporation told Bloomberg its transcription program has safeguards in place preventing workers from identifying individual users. Moreover, the retailer explained its auditors only review a tiny fraction of Alexa interactions.
The Bloomberg report points out that Amazon discloses its use of digital assistant audio recording in Alexa’s frequently asked questions page. However, the page does not mention that audio is reviewed by human workers. Additionally, Alexa’s privacy settings allow users to opt out of having their data utilized for product development purposes. For those desiring to maintain the sweet notion of privacy, go to Alexa’s privacy setting page on a smartphone or computer. Select “Manage how your date improves Alexa.” A toggle switch allows users to opt out of having recordings used for new development features as well as using them for transcription accuracy.
It’s also worth noting that Apple and Google’s artificial intelligence helpers have their interactions reviewed by human auditors. Apple revealed it has workers audit Siri recordings in a November 2018 white paper. Google also admitted its employees review customer conversations with Assistant, but only with distorted recordings. Both Silicon Valley giants said their auditors don’t have access to consumer’s personally identifiable information.
In January, Amazon announced that it has sold 100 million Alexa-enabled electronic devices.