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Amazon has now added an opt-out option for manual review of voice recordings and their associated transcripts taken through Amazon’s Alexa but it has not stopped the practice of taking voice recordings to help develop new Alexa features.

Opt-Out Toggle

The opt-out toggle can be found in the ‘Manage How Your Data Improves Alexa’ section of your privacy settings, which you will have to sign-in to Amazon to be able to see.  This section contains a “Help Improve Amazon Services and Develop New Features” section with a toggle switch to the right-hand side of it and moving the toggle from the default ‘yes’ to the ‘no’ position will stop humans reviewing your voice recordings.  

Echo owners can see the transcript and hear what Alexa has recorded of their voices by visiting the ‘Review Voice History’ of the privacy section.

Why Take Recordings?

Amazon argues that training its Alexa digital voice assistant using recordings from a diverse range of customers can help to ensure that Alexa works well for all users, and those voice recordings may be used to help develop new features.

Why Manually Review?

Amazon says that manually reviewing recordings and transcripts is another method that the company uses to help improve their services, and that only “an extremely small fraction” of the voice recordings taken are manually reviewed.

Google and Apple Have Stopped

Google has recently been forced to stop the practice of manually reviewing its auto snippets (in Europe) by the Hamburg data protection authority, which threatened to use Article 66 powers of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) to stop Google from doing so.  This followed a leak of more than 1,000 recordings to the Belgian news site VRT by a contractor working as a Dutch language reviewer.  It has been reported that VRT was even able to identify some of the people in the recorded clips.

Apple has also stopped the practice of manual, human reviewing of recordings and transcripts taken via Siri after a (Guardian) report revealed that contractors used by Apple had heard private medical information and even recordings of people having sex in the clips.  This was thought to be the result of the digital assistant mistaking another word for its wake word.

What Does This Mean For Your Business?

If you have an Amazon Echo and you visit the ‘Review Voice History’ section of your privacy page, you may be very surprised to see just how many recordings have been taken, and the dates, times, and what has been said could even be a source of problems to those who have been recorded.  Even though we understand that AI/Machine Learning technology needs training in order to improve its recognition of and response to our questions, the fact that mistakes with wake words could lead to sensitive discussions being recorded and listened to by third-party contractors, and that voices could even be identified from those recordings highlights a real threat to privacy and security, and a trade-off that many users may not be prepared to accept.

It’s a shame that mistakes and legal threats were the catalysts for stopping Google and Apple from using manual reviewing, and it is surprising that in the light of their cases, Amazon is not stopping the practice as a default altogether but is merely including an opt-out toggle switch deep within the Privacy section of its platform.

This story is a reminder that although smart speakers and the AI behind them bring many benefits, attention needs to be paid, as it does by all companies to privacy and security when dealing with what can be very personal data.