What is the Trade-Off Between Technology and Privacy?
Speculation and rumors abound among friends, acquaintances, and others about Alexa, the line of speakers offered by Amazon, as to whether there is any eavesdropping in this system. A recent article in Bloomberg News confirms this is indeed the case (http://bit.ly/KenPopeAmazonWorkersListenToWhatAlexaHears).
In reality, there are thousands of Amazon employees who listen to recordings from Echo owners. They transcribe, annotate, and then input this information into the software that operates Alexa, all in an effort to improve Alexa’s understanding of human speech, so it can respond more effectively to commands.
These employees are a combination of contractors and full-time employees, stationed around the world. Part of the job includes a nondisclosure agreement to insure they don’t speak publicly about this program. Bloomberg found out that each reviewer examines as many as 1,000 audio clips in a nine-hour shift, according to two workers in the office in Bucharest, Romania.
The workers have internal chat rooms to share data when they try to figure out a muddled expression. There are times when they hear troubling, even criminal activity, such as when a sexual assault seemed to be taking place in one instance. While they may share this in a chat room among their fellow workers, they are also instructed not to intervene, per these two workers. In its marketing material, Amazon does not reveal that any humans are listening to recordings of conversations picked up by Alexa, even to acknowledge that this is a very small sample.
It is clear that a user’s full name and location are not provided to the human reviewers of the recordings. They do have access to the person’s first name, the account number, as well as the device’s serial number. A job posting for this reviewer position noted in part, “…..Alexa needs our help to make sense of it all (the thousands of people talking to her).”
This seems to be one more instance of how privacy is sacrificed by our increasingly sophisticated technology, in which devices of various sorts accompany us most everywhere. The Sunday Review section of the New York Times, April 14, 2019, is devoted to this issue. As written elsewhere on this website, please be assured that every precaution is taken to protect a patient’s privacy in psychotherapy.
Alan M. Solomon, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Torrance, CA. A member of the Independent Psychotherapy Network, he can be reached at 310 539-2772 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright 2019 by Alan M. Solomon, Ph.D.