Amazon staff may be listening in on Alexa recordings

Posted Apr 12, 2019 by Tim Sandle
Alexa owners concerned with their privacy have something new to worry about. It has emerged that Amazon staff have the functionality of listening in to questions and commands posed to the Alexa voice assistant.
The Amazon Echo smart speaker with Amazon s Alexa digital assistant.
The Amazon Echo smart speaker with Amazon's Alexa digital assistant.
Amazon / press
Based on a statement made by Amazon to Global News it appears that employees at Amazon have the option to listen in to voice commands given by users to the digital assistant Alexa, in the form of instructions ("Alexa, turn on the lights") and questions ("Amazon, where is the nearest clinic").
The ability of Amazon staff to listen in on what people are saying to the voice assistant in the privacy of their own home first emerged via a report made to Bloomberg, and then subsequently confirmed by the e-commerce giant. Moreover, this not simply an occasional activity. Amazon apparently has “thousands” of employees who are listening in. Amazon indicates that the purpose of doing so is tied to continuous improvement initiatives, with the objective of are trying to improve Alexa’s speech recognition technology and to enhance Alexa's ability to understand human language and speech patterns.
As part of this approval process, Amazon employees are tuning in and making transcripts of recordings and subjecting these to further analysis. The transcripts are also shared between Amazon employees, in the form of internal chat messages. Global News notes that Amazon employees are not able to come forward and discuss what is happening because those staff involved have signed non-disclosure agreements.
Amazon has clarified that Alexa is not listening in at all times. The ability to hear what is being said only kicks in when the user triggers the wake command to the voice assistant, which means saying either 'Alexa', 'Amazon', 'computer' or 'Echo'. As the device responds, the ability to listen is triggered.
However, the revelation has not gone down well. According to Ashkan Soltani, the former chief technologist of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, told The Daily Telegraph: “Most people consider a person listening significantly more privacy invasive than a machine.”