FILE – In this Sept. 27, 2017, file photo, Amazon Echo and Echo Plus devices, behind, sit near illuminated Echo Button devices during an event announcing several new Amazon products by the company in Seattle. Amazon is expanding its home-security business by buying Ring, the maker of Wi-Fi-connected doorbells. The deal comes months after the online retailer started selling its own Wi-Fi-connected indoor security cameras, which work with its voice-assistant Alexa. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)

 

Have you ever wondered if anyone hears your conversations with your Alexa listening device?

The answer is, they do.

As you speak, an Amazon employee as far away as India might be listening.

Bloomberg reports that Amazon employs a global team of thousands to listen in on what you say to Alexa.

As they work to perfect their technology, employees are constantly reviewing customer audio clips.  “The recordings are transcribed, annotated and then fed back into the software as part of an effort to eliminate gaps in Alexa’s understanding of human speech and help it better respond to commands.”

In their promotional material, Amazon boasts that Alexa “lives in the cloud and is always getting smarter.”

Bloomberg reports:

The team comprises a mix of contractors and full-time Amazon employees who work in outposts from Boston to Costa Rica, India and Romania, according to the people, who signed nondisclosure agreements barring them from speaking publicly about the program. They work nine hours a day, with each reviewer parsing as many as 1,000 audio clips per shift, according to two workers based at Amazon’s Bucharest office, which takes up the top three floors of the Globalworth building in the Romanian capital’s up-and-coming Pipera district. The modern facility stands out amid the crumbling infrastructure and bears no exterior sign advertising Amazon’s presence.

The devices often pick up background conversations as well. Employees often share files if words are unclear or when something amusing or even criminal is said, on an internal chat room.

One employee told Bloomberg they once recorded a sexual assault. “Two Romania-based employees said that, after requesting guidance for such cases, they were told it wasn’t Amazon’s job to interfere.”

In an email response to a Bloomberg writer’s question, an Amazon spokesperson stated:

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.

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.

It’s perfectly understandable that Amazon needs to do this in order to improve their product. Voice software is a huge and growing industry. And the worldwide appetite for this technology will only increase in the years to come.

According to Bloomberg:

When the Echo debuted in 2014, Amazon’s cylindrical smart speaker quickly popularized the use of voice software in the home. Before long, Alphabet Inc. launched its own version, called Google Home, followed by Apple Inc.’s HomePod. Various companies also sell their own devices in China. Globally, consumers bought 78 million smart speakers last year, according to researcher Canalys. Millions more use voice software to interact with digital assistants on their smartphones.

At a certain point, however, one has to think about how else this information might be used. Especially in countries like China.

Currently, the device is activated when it hears the “wake” word, such as “Alexa.” “When the wake word is detected, the light ring at the top of the Echo turns blue, indicating the device is recording and beaming a command to Amazon servers.”

But Bloomberg reports that cues other than the wake word, such as a “blaring television or unintelligible noise” can cause Alexa to begin recording. “Whether or not the activation is mistaken, the reviewers are required to transcribe it. One of the people said the auditors each transcribe as many as 100 recordings a day when Alexa receives no wake command or is triggered by accident.”

What is to stop an individual or a government with technological expertise from remotely activating the device to listen to all of one’s “private” conversations?

What if Amazon’s, Google’s or Apple’s data were hacked and the information found it’s way into the wrong hands?

Do we really want to invite a device that’s capable of randomly recording us in our homes?