A former Amazon executive has admitted switching off Alexa whenever he wants to have a private conversation.
Robert Frederick, formerly a manager at Amazon Web Services, told BBC’s Panorama program that he does not want staff at his previous employer listening in to his “private moments” via their ubiquitous Echo smart speaker.
“I turn off my Alexa when I know for a fact that the conversation that I’m going to have, or whenever I just want to have a private moment,” he revealed. “I don’t want certain conversations to be heard by humans.”
Another ex-upper level employee James Marcus, who worked as a senior editor for the company for five years, also told the investigative program: “I simply hate the idea of voluntarily putting a bug into my living room, and knowing that some schmo in Seattle might be listening to it on a headset.”
As reported by Bloomberg last year, Amazon employs thousands of people around the world to listen to voice recordings captured in Echo users’ homes and offices. The recordings are transcribed and annotated, and fed back into the software to help improve Alexa’s understanding of human commands.
— Panorama ? (@BBCPanorama) February 17, 2020
According to the article, the team occasionally overhear — and discuss on internal chat rooms — private, upsetting and even criminal things, such as a woman singing badly in the shower, a child screaming for help or a sexual assault.
“We take the security and privacy of our customers’ personal information seriously,” read Amazon’s statement in response to the story, insisting it only annotated an “extremely small sample” of recordings — none of which had any personal information attached that would allow the eavesdropper to identify them.
“We have strict technical and operational safeguards, and have a zero tolerance policy for the abuse of our system,” it said. “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.”
Amazon’s biggest smart speaker competitors Google and Apple also employ teams of humans to analyze customer speech.