Last night, Bloomberg published an alarming report about the “thousands” of Amazon workers paid to listen to Alexa recordings captured in customers’ homes and offices. But users of the company’s digital assistant shouldn’t be too shocked. After all, CEO Jeff Bezos has been trying to tell us for years.
Bloomberg reports that Alexa’s “human helpers” are tasked with reviewing as many as 1,000 audio clips each day to improve its speech recognition. (Apple and Google, the outlet notes, have similar programs for their digital assistants.) These customer moments range from the mundane to the intimate, to the potentially criminal, according to Amazon workers.
While the company’s website vaguely states that it uses customer recordings to “train” its systems, there are also the words of Bezos himself, who has long advocated (extremely) active listening.
“You need to listen to customers,” said Bezos in a video to Zappos employees in 2009. “But they won’t tell you everything,” he added, a bug Amazon has clearly been working on since.
“Listen to customers, but don’t just listen to customers—also invent on their behalf,” wrote Bezos in a 2010 shareholder letter, something few would accuse Amazon of failing to do. As Bezos notes in a later letter, “no customer was asking for Echo” in 2014.
“You listen,” said Bezos when asked by Michael Lewis how he deals with critics last year, a response that personally brings me great comfort and relief.
“Much of what we build at [Amazon Web Services] is based on listening to customers,” wrote Bezos in a shareholder letter published just today, referring to the cloud computing platform that powers much of the web and also Amazon’s dystopian facial recognition software.
In a statement to Bloomberg, Amazon emphasized that the company has “strict technical and operational safeguards” and only “an extremely small sample” of Alexa recordings are reviewed by humans. But given the volume of data the company collects from more than 100 million Alexa-enabled devices, even rare mistakes can have huge consequences.
Two high-profile Alexa fiascos last year showed just how extreme these privacy failures can be. Bezos has always said Amazon is listening in one way or another. Do you trust the company to never pass it on, even by mistake?