Written by: Bogdan Patru
This shouldn’t come as a surprise anymore. Privacy freaks have been warning about this for years on. Pretty much ever since the internet became popular, and countless technological gizmos appeared.
Alexa, the Amazon counterpart for Apple’s Siri, has been found to record what people are saying. These recordings would then be processed by thousands of Amazon employees, all in an attempt to “improve the Alexa digital assistant powering its line of Echo speakers”.
Bloomberg says that, indeed, Alexa is listening to you, but an Amazon spokesperson has stated that “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.”
Apparently, these Amazon workers would collect and transcribe the conversations that Alexa records, and then they would use it as a basis for the development of Alexa’s understanding of human speech. It basically eliminates any errors, corrects any confusions, and fills any gap that might occur during its interactions with humans.
The popular e-commerce company isn’t clear on this fact either, says CBS. They don’t tell you that Alexa is recording your conversations which are then listened to by thousands of other people. Instead, the official claim is that “Alexa lives in the cloud and is always getting smarter”.
Theoretically speaking, how could an A.I program get smarter by itself? It can only evolve through human intervention, and knowing what goals Alexa serves, it’s plain as day what data would help it “get smarter”. Also, how that data would be obtained, and from whom as well, becomes painfully obvious.
Bloomberg goes on to say that this team is made up of contractors and full-time Amazon employees working in places like Costa Rica, India, Romania, Boston, and so on. They are actively listening to 1.000 audio files per shift, working nine hours per day.
Sometimes, they come across distressing content like sexual assaults or the cries of a child in need of help. A couple of the workers said that they have a strict policy to follow in this case. They would often share it on their own private chats just to ease on the stress.
However, they are not allowed to disclose this information to anyone, not even the authorities. Amazon’s policy is crystal-clear – it’s not their job to interfere. Officially, they aren’t listening to those recordings. Only that they are.
When questioned, the Amazon spokesperson has said that they don’t actively listen to anything and everything that goes through Alexa. They only deal with an “extremely small sample of Alexa voice recordings in order to improve the customer experience.”
It’s all for a noble cause, right? Just so Alexa can better serve its goals. To accommodate you better, and to better understand your requests. The end justifies the means, as Machiavelli said.
Only those things shouldn’t be like that. Privacy and anonymity should be iron-clad rules that are not meant to be breached. The worst aspect of this is that people simply don’t know this is happening.
It would have been understandable if these testings and developmental studies took place on people who have given their consent. But Alexa records conversations from anyone, and you don’t know when this is happening.
Actually, there are serious assumptions that whenever Alexa is woken up with a command word, it automatically sends a signal to the Amazon servers, and it starts recording any ulterior conversations.
Once the blue light flashes, we’re going down memory lane to 1984, and Orwell’s fiction of an authoritarian dystopia. The Thought-Police makes its way into the world. And it all starts with Alexa.
Indeed, there are many autonomous complex algorithms running behind Alexa that help it decide what exactly the user requests, but there are times when these simply won’t do. For those few cases, a team of Amazon employees works to fill in the gaps that the algorithms missed.
You can be sure that many times, Alexa records discussions which contain confidential and private information. Banking details, names, phone numbers, login credentials. In this case, the listeners are supposed to tick the “Critical data” box and move on to the next audio file.
Correct, Siri and Google’s autonomous assistant are also helped, in turn, by teams of employees who listen to people’s private conversations and active requests. They’re only doing it to help the A.I grow and evolve, to better serve its purpose and help you as the end user.
So, there’s no reason to worry. Sure, thousands of people are listening in on your private conversations, and they might even hear embarrassing stuff. But, it’s all done for a good reason, right? Your commodity exchanged for privacy.
The next time you start hollering the boot-up command word to Alexa, be mindful of what you’re saying. They’re listening…