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It’s not just your Alexa-powered smart speaker listening to you—Amazon employees may be listening, too, according to a recent report in Bloomberg News.
Thousands of employees at Amazon locations from Boston to Bucharest spend their workdays listening to recordings picked up by Echo speakers, transcribing and annotating the conversations to help perfect the artificial intelligence used in voice computing, the report says.
And it’s not just Amazon. Apple and Google confirm to Consumer Reports that they have similar teams listening to and tagging recordings of people using those companies’ voice interfaces.
Each device has settings you can adjust to limit what the companies can do with your voice data. But experts in artificial intelligence say that the type of human assistance the big tech firms employ to improve their voice platforms are integral to the way these systems work.
“AI and machine learning are built by humans,” says Brian Vecci, field chief technology officer at Varonis, a software security company. “The only way for Amazon to build a machine to successfully listen to people is to have humans tune that machine.”
Similarly, Facebook has used photos uploaded to its platform to train its facial recognition systems, and last December The Information reported that some video from Ring doorbells (a company owned by Amazon) was being viewed by employees to develop AI for object recognition.
Privacy advocates say that if people knew employees could be listening in, they might think differently about how they use smart speakers.
“There’s a distinction between cloud processing and human intervention,” says Justin Brookman, director of consumer privacy and technology policy at Consumer Reports. “People might talk to a machine in a different way if they knew a human being might hear them.”
Amazon says its voice computing facilities have strong safeguards in place to protect consumer privacy.
“We take the security and privacy of our customers’ personal information seriously,” an Amazon spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “We only annotate an extremely small number of interactions from a random set of customers in order to improve the customer experience. We have strict technical and operational safeguards, and have a zero tolerance policy for the abuse of our system.”
However, privacy advocates say those assurances don’t go far enough. “This isn’t the first time Amazon has not been entirely clear with consumers that their ‘AI-powered product’ isn’t entirely powered by AI,” says Emory Roane, policy counsel with the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, an advocacy organization based in California. “This demonstrates—again—that consumers need to be able to know clearly who has their data, where it’s stored, and who can access it.”
(Note: Consumer Reports has an Amazon Alexa skill that offers product advice based on our ratings, along with a daily briefing that works with several smart speaker platforms.)
If you own a smart speaker, it’s relatively easy to adjust the settings to enhance your privacy, to mute the microphone when it’s not being used, and to delete conversations that have already been recorded.
Here’s how to tweak the privacy settings on your device.
To keep human employees from listening: Amazon smart speakers allow you to control whether your speaker sends information back to the company to help improve Alexa, as opposed to just responding to your commands. Here’s how make the change.
Open the Alexa app on your smartphone and tap the menu button on the top-left of the screen.
Select Settings > Alexa Account > Alexa Privacy > Manage How Your Data Improves Alexa.
Turn off the button next to Help Develop New Features.
Turn off the button next to your name under Use Messages to Improve Transcriptions.
To mute your speaker: The simplest way to control what your smart speaker hears is to mute it when you’re not using it. Of course, the unit won’t respond to voice commands until you turn it back on.
You can mute an Amazon Echo by pressing the microphone On/Off button on the top of the device. When this button turns red, the mic is off. To reactivate it, you need to press the button again.
If you have a third-party smart speaker that uses the Alexa digital assistant, consult your manufacturer’s instructions to find out how to mute your unit.
To review or delete your recordings: Amazon stores your recorded conversations in the cloud. You have the option of seeing all of these—the sheer volume of the information might give you pause—and deleting the contents.
Open the App and select Settings. Select Alexa Account > Alexa Privacy > Review Voice History. That will show you the recordings, which can be searched for a keyword or sorted by date.
There’s a tab to Delete All Recordings for Today.
To delete all of the recording on the device, tap Date Range > All History. Erasing all the recordings is tantamount to resetting the unit, so there might be some reduction in its ability to recognize your voice. Note also that this setting affects recordings already made; it won’t keep the speaker from recording you in the future.
To keep human employees from listening: Apple does not allow users to control whether information sent back to the company from a HomePod is heard by employees or used for machine learning.
To mute your speaker: The simplest way to control what your smart speaker hears is to mute the device when you’re not using it. Of course, the unit won’t respond to voice commands until you turn it back on.
Apple’s HomePod doesn’t have a physical mute button, but you can mute it with a voice command: “Hey, Siri, stop listening.” The speaker will remind you that this command will turn off the mic and that you’ll have to tap the button on the top to turn the device back on. Then, you can say “Hey, Siri, start listening.”
You can also go to the Details page on the Apple Home app and turn off the “Listen for Hey Siri” option.
Also on the Details page, there’s an option to replace the “Listen for Hey Siri” function with one where you press and hold the button on the speaker to start Siri.
On the same page, you can turn on settings that make the device light up or give an audible signal when Siri is being used.
To review or delete your recordings: Apple doesn’t provide a way to view or delete your HomePod conversations. A company white paper [PDF] forwarded to CR by a spokesperson says, “User voice recordings are saved for a six-month period so that the recognition system can utilize them to better understand the user’s voice. After six months, another copy is saved, without its identifier, for use by Apple in improving and developing Siri for up to two years. A small sub-set of recordings, transcripts and associated data without identifiers may continue to be used by Apple for ongoing improvement and quality assurance of Siri beyond two years.”
To keep human employees from listening: Google allows you to opt out of Voice and Audio Activity, where recordings may be sent to Google to improve its speech recognition.
On the Google Home app on your smartphone, go to My Activity.
Tap the three-button icon at the top right and scroll to Activity Controls > Voice & Audio Activity. Now slide the button to off.
To mute your speaker: The simplest and most surefire way to maintain control over what your smart speaker hears is to mute your device when you’re not using it. Of course, the unit won’t respond to voice commands until you turn it back on.
The Google Home has a mute button, while the Home Max and Home Mini have a toggle switch on the side. If you have a third-party device that uses Google Assistant, consult your manufacturer’s instructions to find out how to mute your unit.
To review or delete your recordings: Google allows you to see the conversations that have been recorded by your smart speaker and delete the contents.
Begin by tapping the circular icon on the lower right of the Google Home app’s screen.
Tap My Activity to see your individual conversations. You can search by keyword or by date, and delete them individually or in groups.
The most privacy-friendly option is to delete all your activity with a single command.
Tap the three dot icon and select, “Delete activity by …” You can then select “All Time” and tap “Delete” to eradicate your entire history.
Erasing all the recordings functionally resets the unit, which might reduce its ability to recognize your voice. Note also that this setting affects only recordings already made and won’t keep the speaker from recording you in the future.
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