George Orwell’s 1984 novel predicted a Big Brother would be watching and listening in on every household across the country as the government sought to know all the actions of its populace. While the country is not there yet, this futuristic guess is seeming more and more like a possibility as worldwide retailer Amazon recently admitted that its employees actively listen to customers through an Alexa.
As ABC News reports, the company admitted that its workers occasionally tune into a person’s Alexa to help make its artificial intelligence better, or “smarter.”
“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,” an unidentified Amazon employee told 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.
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.
While not intending to be used as a means of surveillance, Bloomberg reported (via ABC News) that some transcripts included “commands to play Taylor Swift, bad singing in the shower or a child screaming for help.”
These were the more uneventful instances, while several others may have included over-hearing a sexual assault and other criminal activity.
“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,” ABC News reports.
The Amazon employee said any information gained through this process is treated with “high confidentiality” and that users were free to delete their own information at any time.
The employee also said the transcribed information (whether it be criminal or not) does not include a person’s personal information.
Bloomberg reports this may not necessarily be the case as each recording includes enough information to track back to a specific Alexa.
The 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.”