This really shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone at this point, but Amazon employees are listening to your conversations through Alexa.
Tens of millions of people use smart speakers and their voice software to play games, find music or trawl for trivia. Millions more are reluctant to invite the devices and their powerful microphones into their homes out of concern that someone might be listening.
Sometimes, someone is.
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 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.
The Alexa voice review process, described by seven people who have worked on the program, highlights the often-overlooked human role in training software algorithms. In marketing materials Amazon says Alexa “lives in the cloud and is always getting smarter.” But like many software tools built to learn from experience, humans are doing some of the teaching.
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.
Technology comes at the price of freedom and privacy. Your smart phone probably listens to all your conversations already. Your smart TV does. Some will say what’s one more listening device in the home at this point? China has developed a social credit system that can prevent people from getting home loans or purchasing tickets. Is it far-fetched to think this could happen in America some day too? Using your private conversations against you?
Whether you take the defeatist attitude or not, why give Amazon, one of the 3 or 4 companies left that will end up owning nearly everything here, more of your own information to some day use against you? Let’s not be naive enough to think they only listen when Alexa is activated or that every “accidental” recording is actually accidental. Wouldn’t be the worst idea in the world to unplug once in a while.