Talk to holdouts opting not to buy into the smart speaker phenomenon and they’ll frequently offer the same reasoning for not purchasing an Echo or Google Home speaker: they're worried someone might be listening. And a new report from Bloomberg suggests their paranoia is founded in facts.
The report reveals that Amazon hires thousands of workers to listen in on clips recorded by the company’s Alexa digital assistant. The point of the program is to help improve Alexa’s responses so it can better find what users are asking for. Bloomberg spoke to seven people who worked in the program to help train the digital assistant by annotating speech clips with appropriate data.
The story noted Alexa occasionally picks up recordings that users would likely not wish to share—embarrassing, unsettling or possibly criminal audio clips—and that the catalogers frequently shared these among themselves.
In situations where Amazon’s Alexa listeners felt they had heard a criminal act, there was a policy in place to report it to supervisors for further guidance. Employees told Bloomberg this system fell apart when actually tested, however, with responses tending toward non-interference by Amazon.
The company told Bloomberg the clips are stripped of identifying data and the voice recordings they sample are protected. "We take the security and privacy of our customers’ personal information seriously,” an Amazon spokesperson said. “We only annotate an extremely small sample of Alexa voice recordings in order [to] improve the customer experience. ... We have strict technical and operational safeguards, and have a zero tolerance policy for the abuse of our system.”