Amazon has admitted to employing thousands of people worldwide who are tasked with listening in on private conversations through its Echo line of speakers using the Alexa digital assistant, and the workers are revealing what they’ve heard.
Bloomberg reported that Amazon has teams of folks around the world tasked with transcribing recordings pulled from Echo customers’ homes and offices. In one shift, the analysts will listen in on as many as 1,000 clips, which the firm says is minuscule considering the tens of millions of people who own the systems.
A company spokesman explained, “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 system, so Alexa can better understand your requests, and ensure the service works well for everyone.”
But the revelation confirms the fears of those who have warned against trading privacy for convenience. Two Amazon workers speaking on the condition of anonymity told Bloomberg that users frequently ask Alexa questions like, “Do you work for the NSA?” or “Is someone else listening to us?”
The Daily Mail noted that “concerns have been raised by some in the past that smart speaker systems could be used to [listen in on] user conversations, often with the aim of targeting users with advertising.” But the analysts are hearing much more than just costumers’ interests.
According to the Mail, Amazon workers have admitted to listening in on people singing in the shower, discussing bank account details, and conducting other intimate exchanges. Staffers have also raised the alarm when overhearing distressing situations like a child calling out for help, and instances where a sexual assault might have occurred.
It’s only a matter of time, experts say, before law enforcement is granted access to listen in on what Alexa hears, too.
Security consultant Robert Graham told Gizmodo a few years ago, “It’s likely that laws will be passed that will allow the police to remotely activate these devices and eavesdrop on suspects, pretty much as described in the book ‘1984.’ “