Alexa, stop being creepy! Our letter to Jeff Bezos

Amazon

Last week, an investigation by Bloomberg revealed that thousands of Amazon employees around the world are listening in on Amazon Echo users.

As we have been explaining across media, we believe that by using default settings and vague privacy policies which allow Amazon employees to listen in on the recordings of users’ interactions with their devices, Amazon risks deliberately deceiving its customers.

Amazon has so far been dismissive, arguing that people had the options to opt out from the sharing of their recordings – although it is unclear how their customers could have done so if they were not aware this was going on in the first place.

Even those who had read the privacy policy would have had a hard time interpreting “We use your requests to Alexa to train our speech recognition and natural language understanding systems” to mean that thousands of employees are each listening up to a thousand recordings per day. And sharing file recordings with one another they find to be “amusing”.

As a result, today we wrote to Jeff Bezos to let him know we think Amazon needs to step up and do a lot better to protect the privacy of their customers. Read our letter below.

If you use an Amazon Echo device and are concerned about this, read our instructions on how to opt out here.

 

Dear Mr. Bezos,

 

We are writing to call for your urgent action regarding last week’s report[1] in Bloomberg, which revealed that Amazon has been employing thousands of workers to listen in on the recordings of Amazon Echo users.

 

Privacy International (PI) is a registered charity based in London that works at the intersection of modern technologies and rights. Privacy International challenges overreaching state and corporate surveillance, so that people everywhere can have greater security and freedom through greater personal privacy.

 

The Bloomberg investigation asserts that Amazon employs thousands of staff around the world to listen to voice recordings captured by the Amazon Alexa. Among other examples, the report states that your employees use internal chat rooms to share files when they “come across an amusing recording”, and that they share “distressing” recordings – including one of a sexual assault.

 

Currently, your privacy policy states: “We use your requests to Alexa to train our speech recognition and natural language understanding systems.” We are concerned that your customers could not reasonably assume from such a statement that recordings of their interactions with the Amazon Echo could, by default, be listened to by your employees.

 

An ambiguous privacy policy and default settings that allow your employees to access recordings of all interactions is not our idea of consent. Instead, we believe the default settings should be there to protect your users’ privacy.

 

Millions of customers enjoy your product and they deserve better from you. As such, we ask whether you will:

 

  • Notify all users whose recordings have been accessed, and describe to them which recordings;
  • Notify all users whenever their recordings are accessed in the future, and describe to them which recordings;
  • Modify the settings of the Amazon Echo so that “Help Develop New Features” and “Use Messages to Improve Transcriptions” are turned off by default;
  • Clarify your privacy policy so that it is clear to users that employees are listening to the recordings when the “Help Develop New Features” and “Use Messages to Improve Transcriptions” settings are on.

 

In your response to the Bloomberg investigation, you state you take the privacy of your customer seriously. It is now time for you to step up and walk the walk. We look forward to engaging with you further on this.

 

Sincerely yours,

Eva Blum-Dumontet

 

[1] https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-04-10/is-anyone-listening-to-you-on-alexa-a-global-team-reviews-audio