A global team at Amazon are reportedly reviewing audio clips of people speaking to their Alexa-powered Echo smart speakers.
The teams apparently review the recordings in order to improve Alexa’s understanding of human speech and make it better at responding to commands.
But the fact that human beings and not just artificial intelligence algorithms are listening into Alexa conversations, is sure to raise privacy concerns among some.
The revelation that Amazon staff are listening into Alexa recordings was first reported by Bloomberg, which cited seven people who have worked on the program, but who have signed non-disclosure agreements banning them from speaking publicly about the program.
Essentially, the team at Amazon spans across many sites around the world, such as in Boston (US), through to Costa Rica, India and Romania.
The team is said to number in the thousands, and is made up of both contractors and full-time Amazon employees.
According to Bloomberg, the teams listen to voice recordings captured in Echo owners’ homes and offices. The recordings are then transcribed, annotated and then fed back into the software to improve Alexa.
Essentially, these humans are training Alexa, despite Amazon saying that Alexa “lives in the cloud and is always getting smarter.”
In 2017 security researchers at MWR InfoSecurity warned of a serious security vulnerability with the Amazon Echo speaker. They found that attackers could record and stream conversations from older Echo speakers that take place within Alexa’s ‘hearing,’ and send them to a remote computer.
But in order for that attack to work, the hackers would have needed to gain physical access to the device itself in order to gain a root shell on the underlying Linux operating system and install their malware.
The Amazon team reviewing Alexa recordings meanwhile are said to be working nine hours a day, with each reviewer examining as many as 1,000 audio clips per shift, according to two workers based at Amazon’s Bucharest office.
It should be remembered that the Echo smart speaker, which is powered by Alexa artificial intelligence, continuously listens to ambient sounds, but only sends recordings to be stored on Amazon’s servers following a “wake word” such as “Echo”, “Amazon” or “Alexa”.
But the device can sometimes mishear words and sounds, and mistakenly sends recordings to the cloud.
And it seems that some of Amazon’s “reviewers” have occasionally heard things that Echo owners would not be happy at. This apparently included a woman singing badly off key in the shower, or a child screaming for help.
But apparently these Alexa human reviewers also sometimes hear recordings they find upsetting, or possibly criminal.
Two workers for example picked up what they believe was a sexual assault. But Amazon’s policy is not to take action on what Alexa hears.
“We take the security and privacy of our customers’ personal information seriously,” an Amazon spokesman told Bloomberg in an emailed statement. “We only annotate an extremely small sample of Alexa voice recordings in order [to] improve the customer experience. 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.”
“We have strict technical and operational safeguards, and have a zero tolerance policy for the abuse of our system,” the spokesman added. “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.”
There have been a number of issues with Echo speakers since their arrival in June 2015. Last Christmas for example, one case reportedly had Alexa telling a user to “kill your foster parents”.
Amazon eventually found that the line had been taken out of context from a Reddit discussion.
But Amazon has also been dragged into legal cases, including murder trials. Last year judge in the US asked the firm to hand over audio recordings from an Amazon Echo.
The Echo speaker in question was located in a house in New Hampshire, where the bodies of two women with multiple stab wounds were found under the porch of the house.
Prior to that in 2016, US police wanted access to some audio data that may have been recorded on an Amazon Echo in a murder investigation of Victor Collins, who was found on 22 November 2015, in a hot tub at the home of Andrew Bates.
Police found signs of a struggle, including spots of blood and broken bottles, as well as an Amazon Echo on the home’s kitchen counter.
In March 2017 the impasse was resolved when the defendant, Andrew Bates, consented to allow the data to be handed over, which Amazon did.
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