Amazon workers listening to Alexa recordings isn’t a big deal. Here’s why

amazon workers listening to alexa recordings 2
Chris DeGraw/Digital Trends

According to a Bloomberg report this week, thousands of Amazon workers are listening to Alexa user recordings every day for quality control purposes and to fine-tune the product. In some cases, they’re listening in during embarrassing or even criminal activities.

My tech-savvy colleagues, some of whom I’ve debated with in the past about the merits of voice assistants (I’m a fan, they are not), were furious.

“See?” they told me after the news broke. “Voice assistants are spying on us.”

These are guys who can talk at length about the benefits of drone technology, the innovations of wireless earbuds, and the features of fancy laptops. They have newer-model cell phones in their pockets and know blockchain and bitcoin better than anyone I know. In other words, they’re tech-savvy guys, and I respect their opinions.

Maybe that’s why they groaned and turned back to their computers when I told them that I didn’t see the problem with Amazon employees listening to conversations.

Why do I feel this way? Well, there are lots of reasons. And while I’m not entirely happy with some of the details of the Bloomberg report (recordings of sexual assault going unreported, for instance), I’m not going to unplug my Alexa devices at home just yet.

I probably need to explain why.

Alexa’s reputation

I get the outrage. I really do. Alexa doesn’t exactly have a stellar track record. There was that time when Alexa recorded a couple talking without them knowing it and then somehow sent the recording to one of their contacts. And then there was the time when Alexa started laughing randomly without prompting. There are other instances when Alexa and other voice assistants have been caught recording when they’re not supposed to, upping the creep factor for a device that many people are already wary of.

But this situation with employees listening to recordings is different, because there is no device malfunction or wrongdoing involved. Alexa didn’t do anything wrong, nor did the employees who are listening to random samples of recordings. Everything and everyone are doing their jobs, whether we feel comfortable with it or not. Here’s why I feel this way.

1. People know that Amazon records the conversations between them and Alexa. And if they don’t, they should

The data being analyzed isn’t recordings taken without the users’ knowledge or consent. It was obtained when users activated the device using the wake word “Alexa.” So, it’s not as though Amazon employees were secretly recording people and then laughing about it in chat rooms.

Amazon affirmed this in a statement to Digital Trends.

It’s not as though Amazon employees were secretly recording people and then laughing about it in chat rooms.

“By default, Echo devices are designed to detect only your chosen wake word (Alexa, Amazon, computer, or Echo),” the spokesperson said. “The device detects the wake word by identifying acoustic patterns that match the wake word. No audio is stored or sent to the cloud unless the device detects the wake word (or Alexa is activated by pressing a button). 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. While all information is treated with high confidentiality and we use multifactor authentication to restrict access, service encryption, and audits of our control environment to protect it, customers can delete their voice recordings associated with their account at any time.”

2. It’s reasonable to assume that humans are listening to user recordings to improve Alexa

It’s apparent to me that device owners can expect that Amazon workers are using data gleaned from real-life conversations with voice assistants in order to make the product better. I mean, if you think about it, how else could they possibly improve upon the product? It’s not as though computers can track and analyze computers. There has to be some human involvement, as that’s how machine learning gets better.

amazon workers listening to alexa recordings tap lifestyle

In fact, Amazon says on its website that it uses “your requests to Alexa to train our speech recognition and natural language understanding systems.”

Admittedly, having “thousands” of employees listening to “thousands” of recordings daily, as Bloomberg reported, seems like overkill. But the fact that those employees transcribe and annotate the recording before using software to analyze it in order to improve Alexa’s abilities makes sense to me. How else would they improve their product?

3. Voice assistant speaker users have already traded their privacy for convenience

My third point, and perhaps my most controversial, is this: If you choose to have one of these always-listening devices in your house, you’ve already compromised your privacy, whether you like it or not. You’ve already decided that being able to turn off your lights with just a verbal command is worth the tradeoff of having an always-listening device in your home.

Whether you like it or not, technology is tracking us and gathering data.

You’ve switched to the dark side, because even under the best of circumstances, the technology can and will fail. And that failure could manifest in crazy ways, whether it be robotic laughter, random farting noises, or the device recording and even sharing when you don’t want it to. If you believe otherwise, either you don’t understand how voice assistants work, or you’ve placed way too much faith in the technology and/or the companies that collect the information.

If you’re an Alexa speaker owner who is unaware that the device is always listening, perhaps you need to read up on what happens when you say, “Alexa, what’s the weather.” While you’re at it, take a step back and re-evaluate what you do with your phone and what you share on social media. Because whether you like it or not, technology is tracking us and gathering data. And we’ve given them permission to do it. Heck, we’re happily giving personal information away.

Amazon told Digital Trends that privacy of customers is its top concern, and users have the ability to delete recordings at any time (here’s our post on how to do it).

“We only annotate an extremely small number of interactions from a random set of customers in order to improve the customer experience,” Amazon told Digital Trends. “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.”

Whether we can trust Amazon with our personal information is a discussion for another day. But my point is, if you’re worried about Alexa spying on you, then maybe you shouldn’t have Alexa in your home.

So, will this hurt Amazon Alexa’s popularity? My guess is no. Most likely, it’ll probably just make the Alexa device haters hate even more, while those who own the speakers, those who have already arrived at the conclusion that voice assistants are worth it, shrug their shoulders and say, “so what?”

My colleagues and I will just have to agree to disagree on this one.

Home Theater

Puro’s kids headphones don’t just sound great, they help prevent hearing damage

Puro Sound Labs' PuroQuiet headphones are a pair of noise-canceling over-ears that are designed for young listeners, allowing them to jam out to their favorite tunes, but limiting volume to avoid long-term hearing damage.
Smart Home

From the kitchen to the bedroom, here are the best Alexa tips and tricks

Amazon's voice assistant Alexa has plenty of neat skills. So many, in fact, it seems like new ones appear every day. We've rounded up the top Echo tips and tricks to help you get the most out of your virtual assistant.
Product Review

JBL’s Live 650BTNC are a wonderful everyday listening companion

A long-lasting battery, solid active noise cancelation, and vibrant sound make the JBL Live 650BTNC a great pair of headphones for everyday listening. Looking for feature-packed wireless headphones at a low price? These are just the ticket.

Jabra wireless earbuds now cost $9 less than AirPods with this Amazon sale

You can now get a pair of our favorite workout earbuds, the Jabra Elite Active 65t, for $9 less than Apple's AirPods, making them a fantastic deal for those who are looking to cut the cord on their listening life.
Smart Home

SMEG debuts colorful dual-fuel Portofino 48-inch ranges for no-compromise cooks

When SMEG launches new kitchen appliances, you can count on retro-classic design, gorgeous high-end finishes, envy-inducing functional wizardry, and lofty prices. This week SMEG launched its Portofino Dual-Fuel 48-inch Pro-Style Range.

Walmart offers big price cuts on air fryers from La Gourmet and Farberware

Walmart made deep price cuts on air fryers from La Gourmet, Farberware, and others. Air frying is faster, healthier, and easier to clean than traditional deep frying. You also can use most air fryers for baking, roasting, and grilling.
Product Review

4K in home security is finally here, thanks to Arlo’s Ultra UHD smart cam

The 4K home security camera is finally here! Class-leading image clarity and a super-wide field of vision makes Arlo Ultra an early contender for the year’s best smart cam. While there are definite quirks to the device, the device…

Amazon drops a killer Instant Pot deal, with prices under $60

Instant Pots are the popular kitchen device known for making cooking easier and faster. Thinking of finally getting yourself one? Amazon dropped the price of the Instant Pot Duo Mini. Prepare delicious meals this Easter Sunday with this…
Smart Home

I have seen the future, and it’s full of salad-making robots

Think that robots bussing tables, tossing salads and baking bread is a futuristic concept? It's actually not as far away as you might think. Robots took center stage at a food robotics summit in San Francisco this week, where they showed…
Smart Home

Ecobee leverages humor in a heated discussion with climate change skeptics

Ecobee cranked up the heat on climate change doubters. In observance of Earth Day, Ecobee and ad agency DCX released video of a social experiment that tested the effectiveness of humor in easing tension during discussions with skeptics.
Smart Home

Miele stuns with wireless probe, self-descaling java pot, and other new products

Miele rocked KBIS 2019 with waves of new appliances and features. The annual Kitchen and Bathroom Industry Show is all about product launches and Miele's appliance reveal was like New York Fashion Week with a single designer.

Shark, Ecovacs, and Roomba robot vacuums get price cuts for spring

The weather's getting nice again, and we're all emerging from our winter-long hibernation. So it's time once again to also start on that spring cleaning you've been putting off. But who really wants to clean when you'd rather be outside? We…
Smart Home

Echo Plus (1st-gen) vs. Echo Plus (2nd-gen): How exactly do they compare?

Which Echo Plus should you buy? This guide compares the first-generation Echo Plus its latest successor, allowing you to get a better idea regarding the ins and outs of each device.
Smart Home

Making hard-boiled eggs isn’t hard — here’s how to do it perfectly every time

With the help of science or some kitchen gadgets, making hard-boiled eggs can be a little easier. It may not be the hardest task in the world, but a few of these methods are foolproof.