Feeling nervous about my smart speakers always makes me feel a bit conspiracy theory-ish, as if I ought to be investing in tinfoil hats. Now I’m hoping I didn’t say any of that out loud, else some tinfoil show up in my Amazon shopping cart.
According to a report from Bloomberg on Thursday, the internet giant has thousands of individuals listening in to your conversations, transcribing and annotating them in an effort to make speech recognition better.
“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,” Bloomberg’s report read.
“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.”
Some of the parsing seemed innocuous enough; one worker in Boston described parsing conversations for mentions of “Taylor Swift” and linking them to requests to listen to the artist.
However, other reports were less innocent: “Occasionally the listeners pick up things Echo owners likely would rather stay private: a woman singing badly off-key in the shower, say, or a child screaming for help,” Bloomberg reported.
That’s not exactly something that’s confidence-inspiring, particularly for someone who has Alexa-equipped speakers in his office and bedroom.
In a statement, Amazon tried to reassure customers that nothing untoward was happening.
“We only annotate an extremely small sample of Alexa voice recordings in order (to) improve the customer experience,” Amazon’s statement read. “For example, this information helps us train our speech recognition and natural language understanding system, 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.”
However, this has always been one of the major concerns regarding Alexa and the Echo speakers — the possibility that the device was listening in on our most private moments.
In one disturbing revelation, two workers revealed they thought they had heard what was a sexual assault.
While some of the audio snippets being examined involve questions asked to Alexa by users, it doesn’t stop there. Bloomberg reported that other employees are tasked with listening to what’s being picked up in the background — including sensitive information such as banking details. In those cases, the conversations are apparently tagged as containing “critical data” and the listener moves on.
That is, of course, if they follow the regulations.
That’s the invariable problem with this technology: It can be easily misused in the wrong hands. It doesn’t even need to be a hacker. It can be someone who’s handling data.
While Amazon says that it has “strict technical and operational safeguards” that prevent against this sort of mishandling, you may be better off going into your Alexa privacy settings and disallowing Amazon from collecting your voice recordings for developing its software.
So no, I’m not going to get tinfoil in my Amazon shopping cart yet. The question is how long the road to that sort of thing really is.
Yes, my example is a bit of hyperbole, but this news still raises important questions about how your data — including your most private conversations — are handled by big internet. Amazon would insist nothing untoward is ever going to happen. Would you be so sure after learning this?
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