Thousands of Amazon Employees Are Listening to Your Alexa Recordings

Earlier this year, Amazon announced that it has sold more than 100 million devices that ship with Alexa voice assistant software, including those with the company’s popular Echo smart speaker. What many Alexa users may not be aware of, though, is that for Alexa to respond to command prompts, it has be listening continuously — and that means Amazon employees are too.

Though Amazon often promotes Alexa as an AI that exists wholly in the cloud, continually teaching itself to better accept users’ voice commands, the company employs thousands of people around the world to listen to and transcribe recordings made by Alexa-enabled devices. These transcripts are then fed back into Alexa with the aim to improve the technology’s speech recognition.

These employees are required to sign a comprehensive non-disclosure agreement and remain extremely tight-lipped about their work. However, Bloomberg spoke with several Amazon employees on the condition of anonymity.

These individuals paint a picture of a relatively uneventful work day, where it’s typical for each worker to make about 1,000 recording transcriptions during a 9-hour shift. However, transcribers occasionally come across odd or humorous audio clips, which they will sometimes share with other employees for a laugh. In other cases, private moments may be captured by Alexa, ranging from a user singing in the shower to more intimate situations.

And occasionally, Alexa has picked up incidents that are potentially criminal. In one instance, a transcriber believed that they heard a sexual assault taking place. When that person brought this up with superiors, they were told that it wasn’t Amazon’s business and were encouraged to move on.

In a statement to Bloomberg about their annotation practices, Amazon claimed to “take the security and privacy of [their] customers’ personal information seriously.” The company added that there are safeguards in place to protect users from being identified by employees.

Even if Amazon’s use of Alexa recordings is purely benign — questionable, considering the internet giant’s proclivity for aggressively expanding its sales and services — what happens when other actors gain access to this type of sensitive data?

Take this possible scenario, for example: On the behest of the Trump administration, in its ever expanding efforts to suss out and deport undocumented immigrants, Amazon is required to turn over these transcripts to government officials to be used for possible ICE arrests.

Here’s another: Given the frequency of data breaches that occur among companies from Apple to Facebook, what if malicious hackers were able to obtain Alexa data? This would open a very disturbing can of worms for Alexa users — some who could face, for example, doxxing or blackmail over recordings made of intimate or compromising moments in a private space. Or, perhaps, a situation in which Alexa devices are used in business settings, hackers might find an opportunity to engage in corporate espionage.

And Alexa isn’t even the most used AI voice assistant service — Google, Microsoft and Apple offer similar technologies on their smartphones and other devices.

There are many foreseeable and unforeseeable outcomes from the rapidly growing popularity of services like Alexa — and it’s time for governments to take action to protect consumers.

Take Action!

Most users of Alexa-enabled devices are unaware that thousands of people are listening to recordings of them in the privacy of their own homes. Undoubtedly, Amazon’s competitors are using their voice AI assistants with similar human annotation. There’s too much at risk to allow this emerging technology to continue forward without reasonable regulation and government-enforced privacy guarantees.

Add your name to this Care2 petition and call on Congress to demand that tech giants like Amazon explain how they use and store these types of voice recordings. Urge legislators to consider drafting legislation to restrict potential privacy violations!

Concerned about an issue? Want to raise awareness about an injustice? Join your fellow Care2 users by learning how to make your own petition and make your voice heard today!

 

Photo Credit: Masaki Tokutomi/Flickr

57 comments

Carla G
Carla G22 hours ago

Signed. Thanks.

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Barbara S
Barbara S1 days ago

signed

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Jennifer H
Jennifer H5 days ago

Honestly? People are surprised at hearing this?

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Paulo Reeson
Paulo Reeson10 days ago

scary, signed. ty

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danii p
danii p10 days ago

TYFS

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danii p
danii p10 days ago

TYFS

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danii p
danii p10 days ago

TYFS

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Lara A
Lara A13 days ago

signed

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heather g
heather g18 days ago

Gosh, I thought I was too trusting - but I draw the line here - definitely.

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Shaz R
Shazsad R19 days ago

Invasion of privacy. Signed petition. Thanks.

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