When, in 1948/1949, George Orwell wrote his futuristic dystopia “1984”, they didn't exist yet: Alexa and company, the so-called smart speakers from Amazon, Google and Apple. Now a feature in countless households, they continuously listen to the magic word that activates them, and then react to spoken commands or questions with the appropriate action or the correct answer. And all that completely anonymous and computerised without human intervention.


At least – that is what we were led to believe. The news site Bloomberg has discovered that the three vendors Amazon, Apple and Google all have personnel employed who listen to the voice recordings of the users of their smart speakers and speech-controlled apps. The companies assert that this happens only infrequently and only with the goal of improving the speech recognition.
The reactions to this revelation, however, would indicate that many users were completely unaware of this.


Bloomberg journalists have spoken to various employees who have listened to sound recordings of the smart Amazon Echo speakers and the Alexa service. Typically, these recordings are transcribed in order to improve the speech recognition of the Amazon systems. The relevant recordings are linked to a customer number, the first name of the user and the serial number of the Echo device concerned. However, a number of employees told Bloomberg that they also exchanged ‘amusing’ clips among themselves in an internal chat room.


The employees however, also stated that they have listened to alarming clips – such as that of a potential rape. Colleagues have said that it was not the business of Amazon to intervene in such cases.


With the Amazon device it is not possible to prevent the recordings from being made and the eavesdropping of those recordings by employees, but it is possible to indicate that the recordings may not be used for ‘the development of new features’. You can listen to earlier recordings and erase them.
Apple states that recordings from Apple Siri are linked to a random ID number and cannot be traced back to the user. The recordings are erased after half a year. Listening to, and erasing of, your ‘own’ recordings is however not possible with Apple.
With Google recordings can be played back and erased from the My Activities page. It is also possible to turn off the recording of speech and audio completely.


Even people who have not read Orwell's book are likely to be familiar with the expression ‘Big Brother is watching you’. This prediction is at least partially true: Alexa and company as ‘Big Sister’ are keeping an eye on us... Even when this is only done to improve the technology, it is nevertheless an unpleasant thought.

Source: BBC