Now we know. Amazon’s Alexa really is listening to our conversations. A Bloomberg exposé details that Amazon has an army of some thousand humans listening to tapes of what Alexa ‘hears’ inside homes around the world.
It's not spying, though. Listening improves the devices, Amazon, and other tech companies, say. “This information,” Amazon tells Bloomberg, “helps us train our speech recognition and natural language understanding systems; listening helps Alexa better understand "your requests" and "ensures" it "works well for everyone.”
Note to tech communicators: prepare your brand's narrative about AI, including AI-learning procedures, immediately.
Alexa’s human listeners are contractors and full-time Amazon staff. They listen 9 hours daily, hearing as many as 1,000 audio clips per shift, according to Bloomberg. In addition to hearing commands, "Alexa, add almond milk to the grocery list," and questions, "Alexa, who's the prime minister of Italy?" Amazon's human-listening troops hear you pontificating about sports and politics, telling a joke and upbraiding the kids for being glued to their mobile phone.
Amazon insists its zero-tolerance policy prohibits employees from misusing the audio clips. “Employees do not have direct access to information that can identify the person or account [they’re hearing]," it says. In addition, "all information is treated with high confidentiality." Amazon says it uses "multi-factor authentication" to restrict access. It also employs encryption and conducts "audits of our control environment to protect it.”
Yes, Amazon’s policies for protecting consumers' conversations seem responsible. On the other hand, why not be transparent? 'We and our devices are listening to you, for educational purposes only,' Amazon and other tech companies should tell us. A really good communications effort could make that seem palatable, right?
In Fletcher Knebel's 1965 best-selling political novel, "Night of Camp David", which was re-released last year, the president of the United States urges across-the-board phone-tapping. Only criminals should have concerns about that, president Mark Hollenbach says. Even in a novel, the public is reluctant to buy it.
There's an easier solution. It's one that a communicator, as the eyes and ears of the public, might have suggested. People buy Alexa so it can respond to commands and answer questions. As such, limit Alexa’s human listeners to those moments when people are addressing the hockey puck device. Will Alexa learn language that much faster listening to mom singing off-key in the shower?
Above all, be transparent. Have communicators invite media to witness Alexa's listeners behaving properly. Similarly, offer to show reporters and the public your company's privacy policies and other safeguards. In an AI era, these steps could make the communicator’s job of building and maintaining brand trust far easier.
Seth Arenstein is editor of PRNEWS. Follow him: @skarenstein