Who’s listening to instructions given to smart assistants?

Owners of voice-responsive electronic devices are having their messages listened to by workers at tech giants including Amazon, Google and Apple, reports reveal. 

Amazon-owned Alexa is just one of the speech recognition services that sends recordings for “review” by human analysts.

The firms involved each say that the practice is used occasionally to develop product quality, but Bloomberg reports speculate that consumers are not aware that their words are being passed on to other people.

After speaking with seven individuals who assessed audio messages through Amazon Echo, Bloomberg found that reviewers tended to transcribe and annotate snippets of conversation to improve voice recognition.

For Amazon, each recording is linked to an account number, the owner’s first name and the security code of the device being used.

A number of the review staff said that they would share funnier audio files with colleagues on an internal chat forum, while others said that they had also heard vocal experts that suggested sexual abuse had been taking place. The reviewers claimed that co-workers had said that it was not Amazon’s responsibility to get involved in such dialogues.

Within Amazon’s Alexa terms, it states that user recordings are used to “answer your questions, fulfil your requests, and improve your experience and our services.” No mention is made of real people hearing what’s being said.

In an official statement, the retail and tech giant said it treated security and privacy with seriousness, maintaining that only “an extremely small sample of Alexa voice recordings” were analysed.

“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,” the statement added.

“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,” it continued.

Florian Schaub, a professor at the University of Michigan has researched the issue.

“You don’t necessarily think of another human listening to what you’re telling your smart speaker in the intimacy of your home,” he told Bloomberg.

“I think we’ve been conditioned to the [assumption] that these machines are just doing magic machine learning. But the fact is there is still manual processing involved.

“Whether that’s a privacy concern or not depends on how cautious Amazon and other companies are in what type of information they have manually annotated, and how they present that information to someone,” he added.

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