Amazon workers study conversations recorded by Alexa: report

Amazon employees working with the company's Alexa digital voice assistant reportedly review audio recorded after the wake word is detected on users' Echo devices as they work to improve Alexa's voice recognition and command responses.

Several employees told Bloomberg News that dozens of Amazon employees working out of countries such as India, Romania, Costa Rica and the U.S. listen to voice recordings taken by Amazon's Echo systems captured after a user intentionally or inadvertently "woke" the system up with a key phrase, which the workers then transcribe and annotate for use in Alexa's understanding of human speech patterns.

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The practice has exposed Amazon employees to recordings that would otherwise be private, according to Bloomberg. The outlet reported that Amazon employees have discussed in internal chat rooms amusing audio clips recorded by the Echo systems, as well as hearing recordings that are shocking or possibly criminal, such as possible sexual assaults, which two workers reported having heard.

Amazon workers described to Bloomberg hearing other audio clips including a child screaming for help and a woman singing off key in the shower. 

Bloomberg noted that a frequently asked questions site detailing concerns about the Alexa software did not mention specifically that human beings would have access to audio files recorded in users' homes.

“We use your requests to Alexa to train our speech recognition and natural language understanding systems,” the webpage reads.

An Amazon spokesperson told Bloomberg that precautions are taken to ensure that Amazon employees do not have access to identifying information about the owners overheard in the audio clips, and stressed that proper privacy protections were being observed.

In Alexa's privacy settings, the company allows users to disable the use of their voice recordings for the development of new features.

“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," an Amazon spokesperson told Bloomberg.

“We take the security and privacy of our customers’ personal information seriously,” the spokesman added. “We only annotate an extremely small sample of Alexa voice recordings in order [to] improve the customer experience."