Recordings from yet another Amazon-owned smart home device are being reviewed by a team of human workers, again raising concerns that audio and video captured by such devices may not be as private as some customers might assume.
Citing sources familiar with the program, Bloomberg reported Thursday that “dozens” of workers for the e-commerce giant who are based in Romania and India are tasked with reviewing footage collected by Cloud Cams—Amazon’s app-controlled, Alexa-compatible indoor security devices—to help improve AI functionality and better determine potential threats. Bloomberg reported that at one point, these human workers were responsible for reviewing and annotating roughly 150 security snippets of up to 30 seconds in length each day that they worked.
Two sources who spoke with Bloomberg told the outlet that some clips depicted private imagery, such as what Bloomberg described as “rare instances of people having sex.” An Amazon spokesperson told Gizmodo that reviewed clips are submitted either through employee trials or customer feedback submissions for improving the service.
“Using the ‘feedback’ option in the Cloud Cam app, customers are able to share a specific clip with Amazon to improve the service,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “When a customer chooses to share a clip, it may get annotated and used for supervised learning to improve the accuracy of Cloud Cam’s computer vision systems. For example, supervised learning helps Cloud Cam better distinguish different types of motion so we can provide more accurate alerts to customers.”
What Amazon describes sounds like one of those vague prompts you see on a PC that asks if you’d like to share data to improve the service after it encountered a problem. When Gizmodo asked Amazon to clarify why a user would voluntarily choose to share a clip with the online retail giant, a spokesperson told us:
Every clip surfaced to a Cloud Cam customer has the “Send Feedback” button at the bottom (screenshot below). Customers typically send clips for feedback if there was something wrong with it, i.e. if they got a motion detection alert but the clip doesn’t contain any motion, or the resolution of the clip isn’t satisfactory.
So to be clear, customers are sharing clips for troubleshooting purposes, but they aren’t necessarily aware of what happens with that clip after doing so.
More troubling, however, is an accusation from one source who spoke with Bloomberg that some of these human workers tasked with annotating the clips may be sharing them with members outside of their restricted teams, despite the fact that reviews happen in a restricted area that prohibits phones. When asked about this, a spokesperson told Gizmodo by email that Amazon’s rules “strictly prohibit employee access to or use of video clips submitted for troubleshooting, and have a zero tolerance policy for about of our systems.”
“We treat this information with the highest confidentiality, and have strict technical and operational safeguards in place to protect it including use of secured facilities and multi-factor authentication to restrict access, service encryption, and audits of our control environment,” the spokesperson said.
The Amazon spokesperson claimed that the company informs customers in prompts that “clips will be used to help improve Cloud Cam.” The spokesperson also pointed to a Cloud Cam FAQ page also cited by Bloomberg that contains seemingly cleverly crafted language about who can see Cloud Cam clips. According to that page (emphasis ours), “Only you or people you have shared your account information with can view your clips, unless you choose to submit a clip to us directly for troubleshooting. Customers can also choose to share clips via email or social media.”
Cloud Cams are not the only devices the company owns that have been accused of watching or listening in on unsuspecting customers. Bloomberg previously reported in April that Amazon workers are listening to and annotating Alexa recordings and sometimes share them in private chat rooms for purposes of help or humor.
Reviews of both Alexa recordings and Cloud Cam recordings are intended to improve its algorithms and the functionality of its AI. Back in April, a spokesperson for the company said Amazon only annotates “an extremely small sample of Alexa voice recordings in order [to] improve the customer experience.” With respect to Cloud Cam reviews, a spokesperson told Gizmodo a small fraction of one percent of footage gets submitted for feedback.
“We take privacy seriously and put Cloud Cam customers in control of their video clips,” the Amazon spokesperson said in a statement. “Only customers can view their clips, and they can delete them at any time by visiting the Manage My Content and Devices page.” Okay.
To be clear, it’s not just Amazon who’s been accused of allowing human workers to listen in on whatever is going on in your home. Motherboard has reported that both Xbox recordings and Skype calls are reviewed by human contractors. Apple, too, was accused of capturing sensitive recordings that contractors had access to. The fact is these systems just aren’t ready for primetime and need human intervention to function and improve—a fact that tech companies have successfully downplayed in favor of appearing to be magical wizards of innovation.