If you've ever wondered if your Alexa device is listening to you while you're not directly interacting with it, Bloomberg has some bad news for you: the answer appears to be yes.
In a shocking report issued Thursday (though, perhaps not so shocking to privacy experts), Bloomberg found that "Amazon.com Inc. employs thousands of people around the world to help improve the Alexa digital assistant powering its line of Echo speakers."
"The team," they say, "listens to voice recordings captured in Echo owners’ homes and offices. 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."
Amazon, CBS reports, doesn't explicitly tell users that they're being listened to when they're communicating with Alexa (and worse, when they're not). Instead, the marketing materials simply say that Alexa "lives in the cloud and is always getting smarter." The closest the company's literature comes to admitting that there's a concerted effort to scan and save information gathered on Alexa devices is a throwaway line in their "Frequently Asked Questions" that says, "[W]e use your requests to Alexa to train our speech recognition and natural language understanding systems."
Most consumers are likely to believe that means requests made to and interactions made with Alexa are saved and rated. That's a reasonable conclusion, particularly given that the Alexa app lists an "archive" of Alexa requests and responses and allows users to rate interactions and suggest changes.
Bloomberg, however, says there is a team of thousands of workers, most located outside of the United States, who analyze Alexa-collected data. These workers are sworn to secrecy on the project, which tasks them with searching for key words (though they say they filter out words and phrases they don't believe Alexa was supposed to pick up). They share what they find on an internal chatroom.
Amazon was defensive about the program in a statement emailed to Bloomberg and noted that they believe they have adequate safeguards in place to prevent people's personal information from being used — or even publicly released.
“We take the security and privacy of our customers’ personal information seriously,” an Amazon spokesman said in an emailed statement. “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.”
They also offer a way to "opt-out" of the program inside the Alexa app, though it's not exactly easy to find. Bloomberg does also say that it has reviewed several of the submissions to Amazon's Alexa enhancement team from Alexa devices and much of the identifying information — like name and account number — are stripped out. The device's serial number and the user's account number are typically left in.
Amazon is right in saying that its not alone in using a human team to improve the performance of its artificial intelligence products. Apple's Siri also has a human assessment team that looks at Siri interactions in an effort to make them better, and Google's Home devices also have an option for reviewers to assess how well the product answers their questions.
As for how Amazon uses the information? It says it only collects random samples of interactions and deletes the data after its analyzed. Echo conversations aren't recorded and saved.