C. Jee. “Amazon workers are listening to some of your conversations with Alexa”, MIT Technology Review, 2019. [Online]. Available: https://www.technologyreview.com/the-download/613303/amazon-workers-are-listening-to-some-of-your-conversations-with-alexa/
About the article author
Charlotte Jee writes The Download, a daily newsletter about tech. Prior to joining MIT Technology Review, she was an editor for Techworld. Before that, she was a reporter covering the intersection of politics, the public, and technology.
To improve the technology behind Amazon’s Alexa, a team working in offices around the world, including Boston, India, Romania, and Costa Rica, review snippets of audio gathered from Alexa users. The recordings are transcribed, annotated, and fed back. This practice highlights an often overlooked part of developing an algorithm: human involvement. As Alexa learns, often humans teach. Employees do tasks such as determining how effective Alexa’s response to audio was, or note everything the recording picks up, such as background noise and other conversations. When highly sensitive data such as bank numbers are voiced, employees must check a box that says, “critical data.” Amazon has stated that it is against their policy to interfere or act based upon the data collected. Employees do not have access to the personal information of the people they record. Recordings are associated with an account number, the user’s first name, and the serial number of the device.
The security risks of Alexa have been discussed in great length by other writers, but this article establishes proof of some of the fears that users have. It demonstrates how this process works in action and what the possible vulnerabilities may be. It also opens up other ethical issues: should an Amazon employee act if Alexa records a possibly violent situation? Amazon’s policy currently says no, but as Amazon continues to collect data from its users, the question of what is ethical to do with this data will only surface again and again.