You may already know that Amazon keeps track of every interaction you have with Alexa. You may even know how to view or delete those recordings. But you might not know that “thousands” of actual human beings may be listening to them.
A recent Bloomberg report, citing a handful of Amazon Alexa improvement workers, took a deep dive into the how and why of annotating user's audio interactions with Alexa. Some of the report’s findings were fairly benign, while others warrant a bit more concern. Continue reading to learn 7 Shocking Secrets Amazon Employees Just Revealed About Alexa.
Real People Listen to Your Alexa Interactions
Amazon is pretty clear on the fact that Alexa voice recordings are used to improve the digital assistant. What the company is less clear on is the fact that real people do some of that work. So yeah, it isn’t just paranoia. As the Bloomberg report notes, “sometimes, someone is” listening.
Not all voice recordings are given to human staff, but those that are, are transcribed, annotated and fed back into the software. The goal is to “eliminate gasps in Alexa’s understanding of human speech and help it better respond to commands.”
The Audio Files Can Be Traced Back to You
One of the more concerning parts about the Bloomberg story is not that people are listening to your Alexa interactions, it’s that those interactions aren’t randomized.
Unlike firms like Apple or even Google, the files still bear an account number, first name, and device serial number — all information that can trace a recording back to you.
In a statement to Bloomberg, Amazon attempted to clarify its privacy practices. The firm claims that it only annotates “an extremely small sample of Alexa voice recordings.” It also said that there are strict safeguards in place, Amazon has a zero-tolerance policy for abuse, and employees apparently don’t have access to the identifiable user data.
Alexa May Be Listening without Wake Words
If you own an Alexa device, you’ve probably heard the digital assistant say something seemingly out of nowhere. Usually, that’s because the system detected some speech that sounded a bit like an Echo wake word but wasn’t. Some of these recordings are sent over to Amazon’s human improvement teams.
This means that humans could be listening to snippets of conversations you have that don’t involve Alexa. Of course, the primary goal of this type of annotation is to make Alexa respond to false positives less. But it could still mean Amazon is listening to things you don’t necessarily want it to.
Employees May ‘Share’ Amusing Recordings
Because of the possibility of false positive wakings, there are undoubtedly times when Amazon gets sent a recording of something a user didn’t intend to tell Alexa. One Amazon employee told Bloomberg that they sometimes come across recordings that users probably don’t want heard — like singing off-key in the shower or a child screaming for help.
Bloomberg notes that sometimes Amazon employees will share these audio recordings when they need help figuring out a certain word. Or, more concerningly, when an Amazon employee comes across an “amusing recording.”
Alexa Improvement Is a Global Operation
Another interesting tidbit from the Bloomberg article: human work on Alexa improvement is a fairly big operation. According to the publication, there are “thousands” of people who are directly involved in this type of work.
They aren’t all in the U.S., either. Amazon has Alexa improvement facilities spread across the globe, including in Boston, Costa Rica, India and Romania. Interestingly, these offices have no external indication of the work that goes on inside — many of them don’t even bear an Amazon logo.
Some Recordings Are Criminal
It isn’t just your shower karaoke sessions that could be eavesdropped upon. Several Alexa improvement staffers said they sometimes hear recordings that are upsetting — or even criminal. Like with “amusing recordings,” workers say they sometimes share these audio files as a way of relieving stress.
But those distressing files are concerning for another reason: Amazon may not do anything about it. For example, two workers said they believed they heard a recording of what appeared to be a sexual assault. While Amazon told Bloomberg it has procedures in place for these types of situations, those workers said that managers told them it wasn’t Amazon’s job to interfere.
Alexa Recordings Can Be Disabled (Here's How)
While this isn’t technically something Amazon employees told Bloomberg, it’s still worth noting nonetheless. Sending audio recordings for Alexa improvement is technically an opt-in program for Amazon users. But Amazon doesn’t exactly make that very clear across any of its websites or pages.
If you’re worried about people or algorithms listening to your recording, you can disable this program in the Alexa app for iOS or Android — but the option to is a bit buried.
- Go to the Settings menu in the Alexa app.
- Tap on Alexa Account
- Navigate to Alexa Privacy
- Finally, tap on Manage How Your Data Improves Alexa. You can hit both of the toggles in this menu to stop recordings from being sent to Amazon.
If you're concerned about your privacy, you might want to pick up Apple's HomePod for your smart home.