Alexa is always listening — and so are Amazon workers

The company says it uses workers to review recordings to train its AI systems.

April 11, 2019, 5:33 PM

It's not just Alexa listening when you talk to her.

Sometimes there's Amazon workers tuning in as well, the company confirmed on Thursday.

Amazon workers around the world listen in to help make its artificial intelligence, aka Alexa, smarter, the company said.

"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," a company spokesperson wrote in an emailed statement to ABC News.

Echo devices, Amazon's smart speakers, respond to keyword-detecting technology to know when a "wake word" like "Alexa" is uttered, and then stores and send the commands to the cloud, the company said.

“By default, Echo devices are designed to detect only your chosen wake word (Alexa, Amazon, Computer or Echo). The device detects the wake word by identifying acoustic patterns that match the wake word. No audio is stored or sent to the cloud unless the device detects the wake word (or Alexa is activated by pressing a button)," the statement said.

PHOTO: Alexa, an intelligent personal assistant developed by Amazon's Lab126 at the Frontier Tech Forum, in December 2016.
Alexa, an intelligent personal assistant developed by Amazon's Lab126 at the Frontier Tech Forum, in December 2016.
picture alliance/Frank Duenzl/Newscom, FILE

The existence of these teams was first reported by Bloomberg, who reported that the company has hired thousands of employees and contractors around the world, including in Boston, Costa Rica, India and Romania to review, transcribe, mark up and then feed back the information into its software to improve Alexa's grasp of language and voice commands.

Bloomberg reported that the majority of the transcribed clips were uneventful: commands to play Taylor Swift, bad singing in the shower or a child screaming for help.

However, the report cited more disturbing instances of recordings.

"Sometimes they hear recordings they find upsetting, or possibly criminal. Two of the workers said they picked up what they believe was a sexual assault. When something like that happens, they may share the experience in the internal chat room as a way of relieving stress," the report said.

Amazon seemingly denies this portion of the report. The company spokesperson wrote, "when the wake word is detected, the light ring at the top of the Echo turns blue, indicating the device is streaming your voice request to the cloud. Only recordings after the wake work are ever streamed to Amazon."

The revelation of human teams working off of Alexa recordings may spark privacy concerns, but Amazon said, "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. While 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, customers can delete their voice recordings associated with their account at any time.”

Still, a screenshot viewed by Bloomberg reporters showed that the human-reviewed recordings "don't provide a user’s full name and address but are associated with an account number, as well as the user’s first name and the device’s serial number," the report said.

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