Thousands of Amazon Workers Listen to Recordings Taken From Alexa: Report

By Zachary Stieber

Thousands of Amazon workers are listening to recordings taken from Alexa devices from people’s homes and transcribing the recordings, according to a new report.

The workers send the transcriptions back into the Amazon Echo software in an effort to erase gaps in Alexa’s ability to understand speech, Bloomberg reported.

Because the recordings are taken from devices stationed in people’s homes, background chatter can be heard in some of them, including conversations that were not meant to be on the record.

The team responsible for listening to the recordings, which are believed by some consumers to be private, are spread across outposts in Boston, Costa Rica, India, and Romania.

Amazon Alexa. (Amazon)

The workers work nine hours each day and parse as many as 1,000 audio clips per shift. Workers described the task as mundane.

“One worker in Boston said he mined accumulated voice data for specific utterances such as ‘Taylor Swift’ and annotated them to indicate the searcher meant the musical artist. Occasionally the listeners pick up things Echo owners likely would rather stay private: a woman singing badly off key in the shower, say, or a child screaming for help,” Bloomberg reported, citing seven people who have worked on the program.

“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. Amazon said it has procedures in place for workers to follow when they hear something distressing, but two Romania-based employees said that, after requesting guidance for such cases, they were told it wasn’t Amazon’s job to interfere.”

Amazon didn’t deny the report.

Amazon logo
The Amazon logo inside the company’s office in Bengaluru, India, on April 20, 2018. (Abhishek N. Chinnappa/Reuters)

In a statement to Bloomberg, the tech giant stated, “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,” it added.

The revelation comes several months after sources told The Intercept that Amazon-owned Ring, which operates doorbell cameras, provides a research and development team based in Ukraine access to virtually all footage from Ring cameras around the world.

The company also enabled executives and engineers in the United States to watch from any customer feed, regardless of whether they needed access to the feed for their job, according to one source.

A ‘Ring Stick Up Cam’ is pictured at the Amazon headquarters, following a launch event in Seattle, Wash., on Sept. 20, 2018. The camera was launched alongside more than 70 Alexa-enable products during the event. (Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)

“If [someone] knew a reporter or competitor’s email address, [they] could view all their cameras,” the source said, noting that engineers at the company sometimes “teas[ed] each other about who they brought home” after romantic dates, knowing other engineers might watch the footage from Ring cameras.

A second source said that a team working on vide-tagging watched not only footage from doorbell cameras but also from household interiors, saying employees at times showed each other videos that included people kissing, firing guns, and stealing.

“We take the privacy and security of our customers’ personal information extremely seriously. In order to improve our service, we view and annotate certain Ring videos,” a Ring representative said in a statement.

“These videos are sourced exclusively from publicly shared Ring videos from the Neighbors app (in accordance with our terms of service), and from a small fraction of Ring users who have provided their explicit written consent to allow us to access and utilize their videos for such purposes.”