It’s not just your home assistant that’s listening to you

When people speak to their home assistant — like Google Home or Alexa — most know that the “conversation” is recorded. What they might not know, however, is that some of those clips are being reviewed by human reviewers.

According to a recent report by Bloomberg, Amazon pays a workforce located around the world to listen to recordings and transcribe, in order to improve their algorithm. The company has offices employing both full-time workers and contract workers in “in outposts from Boston to Costa Rica, India and Romania,” according to sources who spoke with Bloomberg. Workers may sort through as many as 1,000 clips in a 9-hour shift, transcribing, annotating, and then submitting their findings back into the system so that the algorithm can learn from their work.

This kind of human training of algorithms isn’t uncommon — it’s how most AI is trained. The issue with Amazon sharing these clips is that they don’t explicitly communicate to their customers that actual human ears may listen to what they’re saying. In Amazon’s marketing and privacy materials, they say “We use your requests to Alexa to train our speech recognition and natural language understanding systems.” They just don’t say who is doing the training.

Amazon insists that the audio isn’t traceable to its source and that the voices are altered.

“We take the security and privacy of our customers’ personal information seriously,” an Amazon spokesman said in an emailed statement to Bloomberg. “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.”

The Bloomberg report also notes that their chatrooms in which Amazon employees not only find relief after encountering a stressful or traumatizing audio recording but also to share clips they find “amusing.”

Of course, Alexa isn’t the only home assistant that has human listeners. Bloomberg points out that Apple’s Siri also uses human training, as does Google Home.

"User voice recordings are saved for a six-month period so that the recognition system can utilize them to better understand the user’s voice," an Apple privacy white paper says. "After six months, another copy is saved, without its identifier, for use by Apple in improving and developing Siri for up to two years."

As for Google home, ”Some reviewers can access some audio snippets from its Assistant to help train and improve the product," Bloomberg reports. "But it’s not associated with any personally identifiable information and the audio is distorted, the company says.”

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