Amazon has admitted to employing thousands of people worldwide who are tasked with listening in on private conversations through its Echo line of speakers using the Alexa digital assistant, and the workers are revealing what they've heard.
Bloomberg notes that this team is a "mix of contractors and full-time Amazon employees".
According to the report, workers can go through as many as 1,000 audio snippets in a nine hour shift, and while most of what they hear is mundane, sometimes it isn't.
The workers who review Alexa clips are searching for terms like "Taylor Swift", hoping to help Alexa get better at understanding that users are referring to the singer, according to the Bloomberg report.
Two unnamed sources told the publication that in several cases they picked up potentially criminal and upsetting activities, accidentally recorded by Alexa.
As the Bloomberg report lays out, Amazon describes the process in its privacy materials as follows: "We use your requests to Alexa to train our speech recognition and natural language understanding systems".
In a startling report, users of Amazon's Alexa devices have their suspicions confirmed that they are in fact being listened to.
The Alexa companion app, which is used to set up smart devices and manage settings linked to the assistant, keeps a log of interactions between users and the assistant, and can be listened to or deleted from within the app. This revelation today at least partly confirms the validity of their concerns.
Amazon employees also told Bloomberg they often hear audio files that appear to have begun recording despite the wake word "Alexa" never being used. Bloomberg found that Apple also has a human team that checks whether Siri's interpretation of requests matches what was asked by users.
Amazon reiterated that privacy and security are a top priority and that "employees do not have direct access to information that can identify the person or account as part of this workflow".
According to research from past year, one in 10 people has one or more smart speakers in their home, with Amazon's range of Echo smart devices the market leader.
Amazon insists it has a zero tolerance policy for "abuse of our system" and claims to use multi-factor authentication and encryption to protect customer recordings during the annotation process.
What exactly is Amazon Alexa listening for? Two of those workers from Romania said they had to listen to what could've been sexual assault.
As a result, workers occasionally hear things they shouldn't. The devices are always hearing, looking out for the wake word, but they're not always listening and recording.
Some of the reviewers told Bloomberg that they shared amusing voice clips with one another in an internal chat room.
"You don't necessarily think of another human listening to what you're telling your smart speaker in the intimacy of your home", Florian Schaub, a professor at the University of MI who has researched privacy issues with smart speakers, told Bloomberg.