Alexa users who don’t want their recordings reviewed by third-party contractors finally have an option to opt-out thanks to a new Amazon policy implemented amid mounting criticism against the company and its voice assistant competitors, Apple and Google.
This policy took effect Friday, Bloomberg reported, adding a new disclaimer in the Alexa app’s settings menu about the possibility of human review along with the option to toggle permissions for it.
Unfortunately, Amazon has never made opting-out of data collection on its devices particularly easy, and this new policy doesn’t buck that trend. According to Bloomberg, users need to dig into their settings menu, then navigate to “Alexa Privacy,” and finally tap “Manage How Your Data Improves Alexa” to see the following text: “With this setting on, your voice recordings may be used to develop new features and manually reviewed to help improve our services. Only an extremely small fraction of voice recordings are manually reviewed.”
Previously, customers could only decline permissions for their recordings to be used to help develop new device features. An Amazon spokesperson told Gizmodo selecting this option also pulled them out of the running for “manual review”. However, the fact that strangers could potentially analyze your Alexa request was never explicitly spelled out in this setting nor in the voice assistant’s terms and conditions.
While we’ve known Amazon contractors have been listening in to Alexa recordings since at least April, the company’s remained quiet on any policy adjustments until now even as Apple and Google temporarily suspended the practice after similar news broke of their own voice assistants. In the latter’s case, one of these contractors leaked more than a thousand Assistant recordings to a Belgian news site last month, prompting an order for Google to halt the practice from a European privacy watchdog, Tech Crunch reported.
That’s not to say human review of these voice assistant recordings is going the way of the dodo. Companies like Amazon, Apple, and Google have been making strides in artificially intelligent software. But as Gizmodo’s previously reported, the technology still lacks the sophistication necessary for it to completely lose its training wheels of human management. These controversies over these past few months seem to be pushing companies in the direction of increased transparency about the practice, though, so users can at least choose whether their Alexa requests echo beyond the device.
Gizmodo reached out to Amazon with questions about the new policy and we’ll update this post if the company responds.
Update 1:15 pm: An Amazon spokesperson said in an email to Gizmodo that the company will be adding “some new language” to its voice assistant’s FAQ page. After a quick comparison with how the page appeared in July via the Wayback Machine, it looks like this rewrite might already be in place. The FAQ page now goes into considerably more detail when answering a question about how a user’s voice recordings help train Alexa:
“This training relies in part on supervised machine learning, an industry-standard practice where humans review an extremely small sample of requests to help Alexa understand the correct interpretation of a request and provide the appropriate response in the future.”
Alexa’s previous FAQ page didn’t mention any human review process. “Our supervised learning process includes multiple safeguards to protect customer privacy,” the new page continues, followed by an explanation of how to toggle permissions for contractors to review your recordings.
The same spokesperson also repeated the following statement provided for our previous coverage of Alexa’s voice recordings and third-party contractors:
“We take customer privacy seriously and continuously review our practices and procedures. For Alexa, we already offer customers the ability to opt-out of having their voice recordings used to help develop new Alexa features. The voice recordings from customers who use this opt-out are also excluded from our supervised learning workflows that involve manual review of an extremely small sample of Alexa requests. We’ll also be updating information we provide to customers to make our practices more clear.”