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AWS, Microsoft listening to voice recordings raises privacy concerns

Amazon and Microsoft won't say how often contractors listen to voice recordings captured in the workplace through products like Alexa for Business and Cortana.

Amazon has alerted Alexa users that the company's employees sometimes listen to voice recordings made by the virtual assistant, raising questions about the data privacy of businesses using Alexa's enterprise service.

Amazon did not respond to several requests to explain how often humans listen to voice recordings captured from Alexa for Business. The voice-activated business service uses the same cloud engine as the consumer service.

Meanwhile, Vice Media reported this week that Microsoft contractors listen to conversations on Skype's language translation service and to recordings of voice commands given to the Cortana virtual assistant

Microsoft declined to discuss whether employees reviewed voice recordings associated with Skype for Business, Microsoft Teams or corporate uses of Cortana. "We strive to be transparent about our collection and use of voice data," the company said in a statement.

Microsoft said it requests permission before collecting voice data to improve "voice-enabled services like search, voice commands, dictation, or translation services." It sometimes shares that information -- stripped of personal identifiers -- with outside vendors, but requires them to sign non-disclosure agreements.

A global team of thousands of Amazon employees and contractors listen to a relatively small number of Alexa recordings to improve the speech-to-text technology, Bloomberg reported in April. Amazon had not explicitly disclosed the practice to Alexa users.

Last week, Amazon added new language to Alexa's privacy disclosure to make clear that humans manually review some voice recordings, Bloomberg reported. Users can grant permission to Amazon to use their data to improve the service. 

"With this setting on, your voice recordings may be used to develop new features and manually reviewed to help improve our services," Amazon said in the latest privacy document. "Only an extremely small fraction of voice recordings are manually reviewed."

Saint Louis University installed 2,300 Amazon Echo devices in student residence halls and apartments last year through Alexa for Business. A spokeswoman said in an email Friday that the school was working with Amazon to disable use of its voice recordings. The university also emphasized that none of the smart speakers are linked to personal identities of individual students.

"Most of our students currently are not in residence halls, and will return to campus later this month," Nancy Solomon, the university's public relations director, said. "We have been in communication with Amazon, and are working with them to implement the option of disabling use of voice recordings. We will communicate this information to students once the changes have been made."

 Amazon for Business is an Alexa add-on that gives businesses an IT console for managing Echo smart speakers in the office. It also comes with business-specific skills and integrations, such as letting users command Echo devices to launch online meetings.

Companies typically install Echo devices in meeting rooms and common areas, but they can also choose to let employees connect personal Alexa devices to the organization's Alexa for Business account.

In marketing materials, Amazon tells businesses it may "store and use voice inputs processed by" Alexa for Business, but says only authorized employees will have access to such content.

Google and Apple also reportedly listen to recordings

Two other major tech vendors have come under fire in recent weeks for failing to explicitly disclose that their contractors manually review some customer voice data.    

Last month, Google and Apple both reportedly suspended human reviews of the voice data flowing through their virtual assistants -- Google Home and Siri, respectively -- following news reports that revealed contractors for each company sometimes listened in on intimate conversations.

The tech giants emphasized that humans review only a small fraction of voice recordings and that protocols are in place to protect the personal identity of users. The teams check for instances when the system provides irrelevant information or incorrectly transcribes what someone says. Fixing those errors should help the software respond more accurately in the future, the companies argue. 

The revelations serve as a reminder of the limits of AI and machine learning as they exist today. Such software is supposed to be able to improve on its own, but the most prominent players in the market still rely on humans to correct the mistakes of their technology.

The media coverage is likely to delay further enterprise adoption of products like Alexa for Business, analysts said. Businesses have already shown that they are hesitant to bring virtual assistants into the workplace.

Some of the tapes reportedly reviewed by contractors for Google and Apple include conversations recorded after someone hit the wrong button or said something the smart speaker mistook as an activation command. 

"The general belief now is that these apps do not transmit anything unless a user specifically says a keyword (e.g. 'Alexa')," said Irwin Lazar, analyst at Nemertes Research. "But as more stories emerge of devices capturing voice, security concerns should continue to increase."

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