It seems like every time the world starts to settle down and get comfortable with a life fully integrated with technology, a scandal like this breaks out.
It should come as no surprise that Amazon has thousands of employees dedicated to reviewing the audio that is captured by the Alexa digital assistant.
Recordings are transcribed, annotated and fed back to the software as part of the process of improving the system’s recognition of human speech and its nuances. This leads to more successful interactions, which anyone who has repeated a phrase to the point of giving up and typing it in will appreciate.
What isn’t appreciated is that the device regularly picks up audio that is of a sensitive or distressing nature.
Some are innocent occurrences of things that users would simply prefer to keep private, poor pitch while singing along or an argument between a couple. However other instances are more unnerving, like when that argument turns into a case of domestic violence or the audio captures the cries of a child suffering abuse.
Because reviewing some of this material can be stressful, Amazon workers occasionally vent about a recording in an internal chat room.
Here’s where things become unprofessional, some employees will share the audio files they find disturbing or amusing in the chat to illustrate their point. Obviously sharing such sensitive information is a huge issue.
Yet Amazon would prefer you not now about this dark practice. In their FAQs section they avoid ever mentioning that the company retains almost all of what is said to Alexa. They merely note that, “We use your requests to Alexa to train our speech recognition and natural language understanding systems.”
The electronics we consume shouldn’t be a source of paranoia, but it would be wise to watch what you say around them. Somebody is listening after all.