The company can listen to audio from all Echo devices, including the millions of UK households which use Alexa.
Employees in Romania, India, Costa Rica and the US are given recordings of some people speaking to their Alexa devices in order to verify that the virtual assistant is correctly understand them, according to Bloomberg.
Amazon employees are also able to listen to accidental recordings from customers around the world, including in the UK, made when the devices think that they hear the word “Alexa.” Reviewers listen to as many as 1,000 recordings per day.
Employees claimed to have heard a possible sexual assault which was accidentally recorded on an Echo device. They were also asked to review recordings of a woman singing in the shower and a child screaming for help.
Ashkan Soltani, the former chief technologist of the US Federal Trade Commission, wrote: “Most people consider a person listening significantly more privacy invasive than a machine.”
And Griff Ferris, legal and policy officer at Big Brother Watch, said: “Many of our worries about smart home devices appear to be proving true … people should think very carefully about the potential consequences before bringing one into their homes.”
Twitter users have also complained that Amazon has given employees access to their Alexa recordings. “They chose to covertly invade people’s privacy,” wrote one Twitter user. Customers have also pledged to avoid using Echo devices after the report.
Amazon’s terms and conditions for its Alexa virtual assistant state that the company uses human reviewers to listen to some recordings in order to improve the quality of Alexa.
Matt Walmsley, EMEA director at cybersecurity company Vectra, said that the report is “a reminder that whilst AI is increasingly powering our digital services, there are often still humans involved in the background, either curating data or acting as an integral part to its processing.”
Bloomberg reported reviewers listening to audio recordings from Amazon Echo devices are able to see the first name of customers, as well as their Amazon account number and the serial number of the Echo device.
Apple’s Siri virtual assistant and Google Home devices also use humans to verify audio recordings, but reviewers are not able to link the recordings with any personal information.
An Amazon spokesman said: “We take the security and privacy of our customers’ personal information seriously. We only annotate an extremely small number of interactions from a random set of customers in order to improve the customer experience.”
“We have strict technical and operational safeguards, and have a zero tolerance policy for the abuse of our system,” he added. “Employees do not have direct access to information that can identify the person or account as part of this workflow.”