Amazon, Apple, and Google employees listen to user voice recordings

  • Amazon, Apple and Google all have employees listen to voice clips recorded by smart speakers in people's homes, according to a new report by Bloomberg.

    The number of people with smart speakers in their homes rose sharply throughout 2018 despite ongoing privacy concerns. Back in December, one Amazon Echo smart speaker user's fears became a reality when Amazon sent recordings of him in his home to a completely unrelated second person. The second user had requested a copy of his own Alexa recordings under the terms of GDPR legislation, but was sent someone else's recordings instead.

    Smart speakers such as the Amazon Alexa, Google Home, and Apple HomePod ranges are more than just wireless speakers connected to computers. They all contain microphones that are constantly listening for a 'wake' word such as "Alexa" followed by an instruction so that they can respond to verbal commands from the user, and that's where things get complicated.

    Accurately understanding human speech is actually a very difficult computing problem to solve. There's a huge variety of accents and regional language uses that make it difficult for a computer to correctly identify what you're saying, and the tiny speaker isn't up to the task. Instead, smart speakers transmit your voice recordings to a server on the internet that then uses its computing power and proprietary voice recognition technology to figure out what was said.

    So what happens to those recordings after you've finished issuing a command? They're usually just stored on the company's servers along with all of your other personal data they have. This has become a hot topic for privacy advocates, especially after last year's Alexa incident showed how dangerous it could be if your recordings fell into the wrong hands.

    This week Bloomberg revealed that Amazon, Apple and Google all routinely have staff listen to recordings of what should be considered private conversations going on inside people's homes. The terms and conditions of each of the services include clauses on using your data to improve the quality of the voice recognition technology, but none of them explains that human staff will be transcribing your recordings.

    All three of the companies explained that employees did not have access to personally identifiable data on the people in the voice clips, with Google even distorting the audio to mask the user's voice. Nevertheless, the companies have come under fire for not explicitly informing users that their recordings can be used for training purposes and not allowing people to opt out of it.

    Source: BBC News, Bloomberg

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    Brendan is a Sync NI writer with a special interest in the gaming sector, programming, emerging technology, and physics. To connect with Brendan, feel free to send him an email or follow him on Twitter.

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