Amazon has become the latest of the trio of tech giants to curb their secretive harvesting and processing of voice recordings via virtual assistants. The practice was rife with Google and Apple, as well.
Amazon announced on Friday that it would allow users of its smartphone assistance app Alexa to deny the company access to their private conversations. “We take customer privacy seriously and continuously review our practices and procedures,” the Amazon spokesperson told Bloomberg.
Amazon Echo Plus displayed inside a showroom in Yokohama MID Base Tower Residence on November 22, 2017© Global Look Press / AFLO / Rodrigo Reyes Marin
She said that Amazon would also be updating the app’s settings for it to include a disclaimer informing the customers that Amazon might subject their recordings to manual review if they don't opt out.
That practice reportedly saw Amazon employees listening to and transcribing some of the recordings, with the stated goal of improving the virtual assistant’s services. Amazon was not alone in spying on its customers while keeping them in the dark. Google and Apple were doing the same using Google Assistant and Siri, respectively.
It all came to an abrupt end after the clandestine practice was exposed in a series of groundbreaking revelations. Google came under intense scrutiny from a German watchdog after some 1,000 voice recordings were leaked to Dutch public broadcaster VRT NEWS last month. About one-tenth of recordings studied by VRT turned out to have been made in error, without a direct command by the customer. Caught red-handed, Google assured the regulator it would not be making any transcripts of speech data in the EU for at least the next three months.
Apple said on Thursday that it was discontinuing the practice and initiating a “thorough review” as well. That was, however, not before an explosive Guardian report last week revealed that third-party contractors for Apple were able to listen to medical appointments, business deals, sexual intercourse and even what appeared to be criminal interactions while combing through the troves of data vacuumed by Siri.
Amazon was the last of the three to put the human reviews on pause, although Bloomberg reported back in April that “thousands” of Amazon employees could be snooping on customers’ “conversations” with Alexa with the ostensibly noble cause of upgrading the software.