It is a question that has been asked as long as the technology has existed – are our devices listening to us?
Well, it turns out that the answer is yes. In reality, though, the people who are listening to us are actually doing it for our own good.
Let me explain.
Rather than shadowy government officials and cynical advertising executives listening in for unlawful comments and product placement opportunities, the one group of people that we can be certain are listening are doing so to improve their products.
You see, Amazon has folks working for the company whose job it is to transcribe interactions between their Amazon Echo (Alexa, to you and me) and us.
They then annotate the recordings they transcribe and feed it back into Alexa’s ‘brain’ to improve its understanding and fill in any remaining blank spaces with regards to human speech.
In its own marketing stuff, Amazon says that Alexa ‘lives in the cloud and is always getting smarter’ but that’s only half the truth. In fact, there’s a team of thousands of people helping Alexa to gain this knowledge.
These people are based all across the world and are bound to secrecy by a non-disclosure agreement. However, like many such things, a few have spoken about what they do.
If you’ve got an Echo, someone out there has probably heard you in your house. Each person hears around 1,000 interactions each day, and then they use the information to ‘teach’ the software about stuff.
For example, one guy said that he took a load of instances of the phrase ‘Taylor Swift’ being uttered and then annotated those to include reference to the musical artist.
Oh, and if it is interesting or funny, they have an internal chat function so that they can share stuff with each other. That’s nice to know, isn’t it?
Obviously, with recording devices in a load of rooms, eventually they are going to pick up something criminal. Amazon says that they have protocols and help in place for people who hear anything distressing.
An Amazon spokesperson told Bloomberg: “We take the security and privacy of our customers’ personal information seriously.
“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.”
They continued: “We have strict technical and operational safeguards and have a zero tolerance policy for the abuse of our system.
“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.”