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Amazon employees might be listening to your Alexa chinwags

You might think that your private chats with your Amazon Echo are just between you and Alexa, the virtual assistant that lives in the cloud. That isn’t necessarily the case, as a Bloomberg report reveals the full extent to which Amazon employees listen in to improve Alexa’s smarts.

In much the same way that call centres will tell you that “this call may be recorded for training purposes”, Amazon does this with Alexa, only less explicitly. Indeed, in an FAQ, Amazon simply writes: “We use your requests to Alexa to train our speech recognition and natural language understanding systems.” That’s true, it just doesn’t explain that this sometimes involves human ears on your recordings.

The Bloomberg report claims that Amazon employs “thousands” of staff – both full-time employees and contractors – who work nine-hour days, parsing up to 1000 audio clips per shift. The work is pretty mundane – to give you an idea, the report mentions one employee who spend a shift searching for the phrase “Taylor Swift”, and annotating each one to highlight that this was about a recording artist.

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Apparently the teams – who are based around the world in locations from Boston to Bucharest – do end up hearing things you’d really rather they didn’t: like you singing in the shower. They even reportedly sometimes use the internal chat channels to share especially amusing examples.

But there’s a darker side too. Two of the workers told Bloomberg that they had heard something they thought might be a sexual assault. While Amazon claims it has procedures for distressing content, two Romanian employees told Bloomberg that they were informed by the company that it wasn’t Amazon’s job to interfere.

“We take the security and privacy of our customers’ personal information seriously,” Amazon wrote in a 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.

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“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.”

If this sounds a little familiar, a similar story came out at the start of the year, with Amazon-owned Ring requiring its workers to use footage from customer-owned security cameras for training purposes.

In general, people seem to feel comfortable with AI eavesdropping, but the awkward truth is that to get it to a useable level, human supervision is still necessary. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that companies aren’t entirely transparent about that awkward truth.

Does this report alarm you, or is it a price worth paying for a more intelligent AI? Let us know what you think on Twitter: @TrustedReviews.

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