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.
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.
Having an office conversation about pretty confidential stuff and Alexa just laughed. Anybody else ever have that?
It didn't chime as if we had accidentally triggered her to wake. She simply just laughed. It was really creepy.
— David Woodland ???? (@DavidSven) March 1, 2018
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.
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.
- How to stop Amazon from listening to your Alexa recordings
- Amazon reportedly has thousands of workers listening to Alexa chats
- How to hear and delete Alexa conversations
- Alexa may be everywhere, but it’s Google’s Assistant I want in my home. Here’s why
- Amazon confirms it has 10,000 employees working on Amazon Alexa