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A new report from Bloomberg claims that “thousands of people around the world” are paid to listen in to recordings from Alexa-powered devices like the Amazon Echo.
“The Alexa voice review process, described by seven people who have worked on the program, highlights the often-overlooked human role in training software algorithms. In marketing materials Amazon says Alexa ‘lives in the cloud and is always getting smarter.’ But like many software tools built to learn from experience, humans are doing some of the teaching.”
This should not be a huge reveal. Anyone paying attention to the small print in the Alexa app will have known this for a while, and both Google and Apple use similar practices to improve their own voice-recognition software. Having a human listen to audio and provide feedback to the system can be invaluable in making these features more reliable, but it does raise some ethical concerns.
Both Google and Apple take the effort to completely anonymize any stored chunks of audio. In contrast – and somewhat worryingly – it seems as though Amazon doesn’t strip away all the identifying data from its recordings. Most details are removed before the clips are given over to a human, but according to the report, first names and account numbers remain intact.
Luckily, if you own an Alexa-powered device and this makes you feel at all uneasy, you can withdraw consent to block Amazon using your recordings. The setting is rather difficult to find, but we’ve got your back.
Open the Alexa app on your device and tap Settings from the main menu. Next, choose Alexa Account followed by Alexa Privacy. Finally, tap Manage How Your Data Improves Alexa and switch off the two settings here. Phew. How about making things a bit clearer in the future, Amazon?