Thousands of Amazon workers are listening to your Alexa conversations

The Echo Input turns dumb speakers into Alexa-capable smart ones.                  Tyler Lizenby  CNET

The Echo Input turns dumb speakers into Alexa-capable smart ones. Tyler Lizenby CNET

"We take the security and privacy of our customers' personal information seriously", an Amazon spokesman said in a statement emailed to Bloomberg.

While Amazon says that the manual listening is done only for "quality control" purposes to improve its systems' understanding of competing pronunciations, it has emerged that staff are told to ignore distressed noises, such as assaults or cries for help.

The workers, who are based in locations including Boston, India, Romania and Costa Rica, discuss disturbing and amusing recordings in an internal chat room.

Reviewers typically transcribed and annotated voice clips to help improve Amazon's speech recognition systems. Amazon employees also told Bloomberg they often hear audio files that appear to have begun recording despite the wake word "Alexa" never being used. Amazon's privacy policy is vague when it should be explicit and direct with what it does with customer information.

Recordings sent to the human teams do not provide full names, but they do connect to an account name, device serial number, and the user's first name to clips. "We only annotate an extremely small sample of Alexa voice recordings in order improve the customer experience", said a spokeswoman.

The speaker's privacy settings include an option to disable the use of voice recordings "for the development of new features", but it's unclear if this spares the user from human eavesdropping entirely.

For instance, in 2017, the business expense management app Expensify admitted that it had been using humans to transcribe at least some of the receipts it claimed to process using its "smartscan technology", while Facebook was more open about the fact that a short-lived personal assistant, M, was an explicit blend of human and automatic responses.

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The employees, who range from contract to full-time, reportedly sign nondisclosure agreements and listen to up to 1,000 audio clips per nine-hour shift.

The spokesperson added that employees can't directly access identifying information about the people or accounts associated with the recordings, among other protections for the data, and "zero tolerance" for any abuse. For example, 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.

Google Duplex digital assistant, revealed at Google I/O conference previous year, seems to work better than every other speech recognition software.

According to Bloomberg, an Apple white paper says its Siri voice assistant only enlists humans to analyse recordings that "lack personally identifiable information and are stored for six months tied to a random identifier", though the recordings may later be stripped of random IDs for long-term storage.

Are smart speakers recording all my conversations?

While smart speakers are technically always "hearing", they are typically not "listening" to your conversations.

"It has a very specific wake word, so it's nothing more than any other device sitting on a countertop until it's been woken up". Then go to the Keyboard menu (found in the General section) and switch off Dictation.

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