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54 Amazon and Google are listening to your voice recordings 17
Computer/Internet Services
Views : 827
Date add : 07/13/2019
Amazon and Google are listening to your voice recordings. Here's what we know about that.

First Amazon admitted it -- now Google says it's listening, too. Here are the specifics, and the questions we still want answered.

Ever since Alexa and Google Assistant first burst onto the scene and started populating people's homes with smart speakers and other gadgets outfitted with always-listening microphones, people have wondered whether anyone other than their AI assistant of choice was listening in.

Well, the answer is yes -- both Amazon and Google have admitted that they hire contractors to listen to anonymized user audio clips ( $175 at Walmart) for the purposes of improving their respective assistant's capabilities.

That might have seemed like an obvious assumption to some, but to many, it was a wake-up call. That's true not just for Amazon and Google, but for all of the gadgets and services that need our data to function. What are these companies doing with our data? How are they protecting it? Are they sharing any of it with third parties?

What Amazon and Google say

"We only annotate an extremely small sample of Alexa voice recordings in order improve the customer experience," an Amazon spokesperson told CNET in April. "For example, this information helps us train our speech recognition and natural language understanding systems, so Alexa can better understand your requests, and ensure the service works well for everyone."

lenovo-smart-clock-4
Always-listening gadgets equipped with Alexa or Google Assistant like this Lenovo Smart Clock are seeking a place in just about every room of our homes.

Chris Monroe/CNET
The spokesperson added that employees can't directly access identifying information about the people or accounts associated with the recordings.

"All information is treated with high confidentiality and we use multi-factor authentication to restrict access, service encryption, and audits of our control environment to protect it," the spokesperson said. 

Meanwhile, Google chalks it all up to the complexities of building a fully capable, multilingual voice assistant.

"As part of our work to develop speech technology for more languages, we partner with language experts around the world who understand the nuances and accents of a specific language," David Monsees, product manager for Google Search, said in a blog post Thursday. "These language experts review and transcribe a small set of queries to help us better understand those languages. This is a critical part of the process of building speech technology, and is necessary to creating products like the Google Assistant."

Google adds that the audio samples these contractors listen to amount to about 0.2% of all recordings, and that user account details aren't associated with any of them.

"Reviewers are directed not to transcribe background conversations or other noises, and only to transcribe snippets that are directed to Google," Monsees said.


Now playing: What exactly does Amazon do with your Echo data? (The... 4:45 0.2% -- is that it?

Google's blog post specifically addresses audio that reviewers are listening to for the purpose of helping Google Assistant master a variety of languages, dialects and accents. But are there any other purposes for which Google or its contractors listen to user audio?

I asked a Google spokesperson that exact question, but did not receive an answer. Instead, the company reiterated that language experts review around 0.2 percent of all audio snippets. It did not address whether or not Google has any other purposes for listening to user audio outside of what's described in Monsees' blog post -- details Google only shared after one of those language experts provided Belgium-based VRT NWS with more than a thousand recordings of people using Google Home smart speakers and the Google Assistant app.

I asked again -- are the language experts Monsees describes the only contractors or employees at Google who listen to user audio? I was referred to Google's privacy policy, which reads:

"We restrict access to personal information to Google employees, contractors, and agents who need that information in order to process it. Anyone with this access is subject to strict contractual confidentiality obligations and may be disciplined or terminated if they fail to meet these obligations."

As for Amazon, the Alexa FAQ page reads:

"...we use your requests to Alexa to train our speech recognition and natural language understanding systems. The more data we use to train these systems, the better Alexa works, and training Alexa with voice recordings from a diverse range of customers helps ensure Alexa works well for everyone."

That said, an Amazon spokesperson says that the actual percentage of audio recordings the company listens to and transcribes is very small, and similar to what Google pegs it at.

"We annotate a fraction of one percent of interactions from a random set of customers to improve the Alexa experience for customers," the spokesperson tells me.

As with Google, I also asked if there were any other instances outside of these where Amazon employees would listen to a user's audio recordings. Amazon's answer: "No."phil-swinford-house-tour-18

The smart home tech one injured veteran uses every single day 30 PHOTOS
What about third parties? Is my voice data being shared?
Good question. Let's start with Google.

The company has a multitude of different posts that talk about its approach to privacy for various Google services, and there's a lot to mine through in order to find clear answers. In some cases, the text is confusing.

One instance occurs on a page for Google Nest services outlining the company's commitment to privacy -- a separate page from the Google or Google Assistant privacy policies. Google explains that the guide is there "to explain as clearly and simply as we can both how our connected home devices and services work, and also how we'll uphold our commitment to respect your privacy."

A few paragraphs later, the page reads:

"...we commit to you that for all our connected home devices and services, we will keep your video footage, audio recordings, and home environment sensor readings separate from advertising, and we won't use this data for ad personalization. When you interact with your Assistant, we may use those interactions to inform your interests for a