Amazon has tweaked the settings for its Alexa voice AI to allow users to opt out of their voice recordings being manually reviewed by the company’s human workers.
The policy shift took effect Friday, according to Bloomberg, which reports that Alexa users will now find an option in the settings menu of the Alexa smartphone app to disable human review of their clips.
The Alexa T&C did not previously inform users of the possibility that audio recordings captured by the service might be manually reviewed by actual humans. (Amazon still doesn’t appear to provide this disclosure on its main website either.)
But the Alexa app now includes a disclaimer in the settings menu that flags the fact human ears may in fact be listening, per the report.
This disclosure appears only to surface if users go digging into the settings menu.
Bloomberg says users must tap ‘Settings’ > ‘Alexa Privacy’ > ‘Manage How Your Data Improves Alexa’ before they see the following text: “With this setting on, your voice recordings may be used to develop new features and manually reviewed to help improve our services. Only an extremely small fraction of voice recordings are manually reviewed.”
The policy tweak comes as regulators are dialling up attention on the privacy risks posed by voice AI technologies.
This week it emerged that Google was ordered by a German data protection watchdog to halt manual reviews of audio snippets generated by its voice AI, after thousands of recordings were leaked to the Belgian media last month which was able to identify some of the people in the clips.
Google has suspended reviews across the whole of Europe while it liaises with EU privacy regulators.
In a statement on its website the Hamburg privacy watchdog raised concerns about other operators of voice AIs, urging EU regulators to make checks on providers such as Amazon and Apple — and “implement appropriate measures”.
Coincidentally (or not) Apple also suspended human reviews of Siri snippets this week — globally, in its case — following privacy concerns raised by a recent UK media report. The Guardian newspaper quoted a whistleblower claiming contractors regularly hearing confidential personal data captured by Siri.
While Google and Apple have entirely suspended human reviews of audio snippets (at least temporarily), Amazon has not gone so far.
Nor does it automatically opt users out. The policy change just lets users disable reviews — which requires consumers to both understand the risk and act to safeguard their privacy.
Amazon’s disclosure of the existence of human reviews is also currently buried deep in the settings, rather than being actively conveyed to users.
It’s not clear whether any of this will wash with regulators in Europe.
Bloomberg reports that Amazon declined to comment on whether it had been contacted by regulators about the Alexa recordings review program, saying only: “We take customer privacy seriously and continuously review our practices and procedures We’ll also be updating information we provide to customers to make our practices more clear.”
We reached out to Amazon with questions but at the time of writing a spokesperson was not available. Update: A company spokesperson has now emailed us this statement:
We take customer privacy seriously and continuously review our practices and procedures. For Alexa, we already offer customers the ability to opt-out of having their voice recordings used to help develop new Alexa features. The voice recordings from customers who use this opt-out are also excluded from our supervised learning workflows that involve manual review of an extremely small sample of Alexa requests. We’ll also be updating information we provide to customers to make our practices more clear.
Amazon also said it has now included information on human review of Alexa recordings in an FAQ on its website — where it says that “real world requests from a diverse range of customers is necessary for Alexa to respond properly to the variation in our customers’ speech patterns, dialects, accents, and vocabulary and the acoustic environments where customers use Alexa”.