Skip to main content

Amazon reportedly has thousands of workers listening to Alexa chats

Thought no one was listening to your Alexa chats? Think again. Amazon reportedly has thousands of workers around the world listening to people’s private exchanges in recordings captured on Echo devices after the wake word is detected. The procedure is part of Amazon’s ongoing work to improve Alexa’s performance.

The company employs contractors “from Boston to Costa Rica, India and Romania” to listen to recordings made with Alexa using Amazon’s Echo speakers, according to a Bloomberg report on Wednesday, April 10. They then transcribe and annotate the text before using software to analyze it with the aim of enhancing Alexa’s abilities.

The news outlet spoke to seven individuals who worked on the program, each of whom has signed a nondisclosure agreement that prevents them from speaking publicly about the process.

Prime Day Focus
Roborock Prime Day shopping guide: Lots of options, which is right for you?
Is the Bluetti AC200L the best power station for camper vans?
These Razer Blade Prime Day deals really pack a punch [in gaming power]
Tiny projector, epic 4K cinema: Watch movies anywhere with LG CineBeam Q

While Amazon says on its website that it uses “your requests to Alexa to train our speech recognition and natural language understanding systems,” it seems likely that most people would imagine that only computers perform the task, rather than humans.

A screenshot seen by Bloomberg indicated that the analyzed Alexa recordings — made after a user utters the device’s wake word — do not include information such as a user’s home address. They do, however, link to an account number, and also show the user’s first name and the device’s serial number.

According to two workers in Bucharest, a reviewer can deal with as many as 1,000 audio clips during a typical nine-hour shift, with the work described as “mostly mundane.”

The teams sometimes share audio files in internal chatrooms if they need help understanding a particular clip, though they might also share some “amusing” recordings if they come across one during their work, the report said.

On a more sinister level, several reviewers said they sometimes hear what appears to be criminal behavior taking place, but were told by Amazon the company was unable to get involved.

Amazon launched its Alexa digital assistant with its first Echo smart speaker in 2014. Google, Apple, and others have followed with their own similar devices and smart assistants, though it’s not currently clear which precise methods other companies use to improve their software, and whether humans are closely involved with the work.

While they have made huge strides in the last few years, digital assistants are in the relatively early stages of development, and can still be confused by accents, dialects, slang, and nuances in the language. Such challenges have prompted programmers to deploy a range of processes to help enhance an assistant’s overall performance. But Bloomberg’s revelation is likely to have privacy campaigners calling for more transparency from companies about how they are developing their voice-activated software.

In a statement to Bloomberg on the issue, Amazon said: “We take the security and privacy of our customers’ personal information seriously. 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.”

The Seattle-based company added that it has “strict technical and operational safeguards” in place, and has a “zero tolerance policy for the abuse of our system.”

Trevor Mogg
Contributing Editor
Not so many moons ago, Trevor moved from one tea-loving island nation that drives on the left (Britain) to another (Japan)…
Adding AI to Alexa is the brain transplant we’ve all been waiting for
The Amazon Echo Show 8 at the Devices Event 2023.

“Alexa, turn the kitchen to cooking mode," my wife innocently requests.

“What do you mean by cooking mode?” her digital tormentor needles.

Read more
The Amazon Echo Hub is almost the whole-home hub I’ve always wanted
Amazon Echo Hub.

I’ve long dreamed about having a proper sort of home hub. One that’s always on, always showing me the things I want to control at any given time. Not huge. Not obtrusive.

The new Amazon Echo Hub, one several new Echo devices announced at Amazon's 2023 devices event at HQ2 in Arlington, Virginia, very much seems to fit that bill. It’s a touchscreen that you’ll use to control all your things.

Read more
At long last, Amazon brings AI features to Alexa
Amazon SVP of Devices and Services Dave Limp demonstrates the Let's Chat feature of Alexa, powered by AI.

Nearly a year after ChatGPT introduced the world to the uncannily human possibilities of generative AI, Amazon has unveiled new Alexa features powered by large language models (LLM). At the annual Amazon Devices Event hosted at its new Arlington, Virginia, headquarters, the company announced some major Alexa improvements that will attempt to make replies much more conversational and lifelike, with less waiting time between your interactions and more meaningful replies.

A new feature called Let's Chat mimics the ChatGPT experience by allowing you to have a fluid conversation with Alexa, asking questions about everything from the voice assistant's football team allegiance to recipes. You can even ask it to write emails for you. In the demo with Dave Limp, outgoing senior vice president of devices and services, Alexa sometimes stalled and needed a second prompt to answer questions, suggesting the feature may still need some polish.

Read more