Friday, 19 April, 2019

Thousands of Amazon workers are listening to recordings of Echo users

The Echo Input turns dumb speakers into Alexa-capable smart ones.                  Tyler Lizenby  CNET The Echo Input turns dumb speakers into Alexa-capable smart ones. Tyler Lizenby CNET
Priscilla Morrison | 11 April, 2019, 19:57

As the Bloomberg report lays out, Amazon describes the process in its privacy materials as follows: "We use your requests to Alexa to train our speech recognition and natural language understanding systems".

While Amazon says that the manual listening is done only for "quality control" purposes to improve its systems' understanding of competing pronunciations, it has emerged that staff are told to ignore distressed noises, such as assaults or cries for help.

Staff would then share some recordings among themselves through an internal Amazon chat room when they were hard to understand - or if they found them amusing. But she has a team of humans helping her improve her skills.

As many as 1,000 clips are reviewed by workers in buildings all over the world, many of which do not bear any obvious indication that they are run by Amazon. Their task is to identify the human speech Alexa doesn't fully understand and add the required extra information to ensure Alexa can respond more adeptly in future.

Amazon's privacy policy does not explicitly state that humans may listen to recordings, BuzzFeed News noted, and its explanation of "Alexa, Echo Devices, and Your Privacy" similarly leaves out that information, instead specifying that its devices only capture or transmit recordings when Alexa believes it has been deliberately activated.

There's been a number of incidents where Amazon's Alexa digital assistant has done things like misinterpret something it overheard and started sending random people recordings of private conversations, or audio files kept by the company wound up in the wrong hands.

Amazon last night confirmed the revelations when approached by Bloomberg saying that "an extremely small sample of Alexa voice recordings" are analysed by staff.

The news site said it had spoken to seven people who reviewed audio from Amazon Echo smart speakers and the Alexa service.

More news: EU, China for Strengthening Bilateral Cooperation

For anyone who uses Alexa and is concerned about these recordings, you can stop them from being listened to. The report adds that each of the reviewer is expected to prase nearly 1,000 audio clips in each shift of nine hours.

"We have strict technical and operational safeguards, and have a zero tolerance policy for the abuse of our system".

Amazon also said that employees "do not have direct access to information that can identify the person or account" when annotating voice recordings. "But it's not associated with any personally identifiable information and the audio is distorted, the company says".

What about Google and Assistant?

While smart speakers are technically always "hearing", they are typically not "listening" to your conversations. According to the auditors, they transcribed as many as 100 recordings per day where no wake command was given. If the hot word is not detected on that short snippet, the snippet is immediately discarded.

"Alexa, how do I make sure Amazon isn't listening to what I ask you?" Visit Amazon.com's Alexa privacy settings FAQ page.

"Whether it's Microsoft, whether it's Google, whether it's Apple - you're agreeing to store your data on their servers", said Dimitrelos.

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