Amazon Alexa: The Privacy Concerns When Technology Must Understand Human Needs

November 1, 2019

            In the growing age of technology, companies have to continuously adapt their devices to meet consumers’ needs and expectations. Consumers access Amazon Alexa when they purchase Amazon products such as the Echo or Echo Dot. Alexa is to Amazon what comparatively Siri is to Apple. While Alexa is capable of answering human demands and questions, it has reached this level of complex conversation not only through human interaction but also with the assistance of Amazon employees. According to researcher Canalys, approximately seventy-eight million people purchased smart speakers in 2018 alone. The high demand for voice technology such as Alexa has created a need for detailed-oriented, human responses from each device.

            Amazon faces privacy concerns by hiring specific employees to listen to the voice recordings obtained through Alexa. These employees are not hired to “spy” on Amazon users, but they are a way to train Alexa’s software to have greater knowledge for the human language and to respond to consumers with a higher level of accuracy. An Amazon job posting described the relevant position as, “Every day she (Alexa) listens to thousands of people talking to her about different topics and different languages, and she needs our help to make sense of it all … This is big data handling like you’ve never seen it. We’re creating, labeling, curating and analyzing vast quantities of speech on a daily basis.” Under this job posting, employees were hired specifically to analyze Alexa voice recordings.

            Through news media outlets and word-of-mouth, some consumers have now taken notice that Amazon Alexa is listening to their private conversations to further its technology. Twenty-three children through their parents as legal guardians have brought forth a lawsuit in the Western District of Washington claiming child privacy violations under the laws of eight different states. In the case B.F. v. Amazon, the children claim they have been recorded by Amazon Alexa without their consent. The laws of the states including Florida, Illinois, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Michigan, Massachusetts, and Washington make consent to a recording necessary no matter the age of those involved. Since this case concerns children, it looks to Amazon’s Children’s Privacy Disclosure. Amazon explains that for children under the age of thirteen, they collect Child Personal Information with verified parental consent. Amazon hoped to arbitrate the dispute, but the court ruled on October 21, 2019 that the arbitration clause within the signed agreement only applies to the children’s parents. Amazon argued they could arbitrate because the children benefitted from the agreement, but the children signed nothing and are not bound by their parents’ signature. Within the terms of use agreement, the parties pronounced were “you” and Amazon. There was no indication that “you” referred to anyone other than the signatory, so it could not apply to an entire household.

            What do these privacy concerns mean for Amazon in the future? With Amazon Alexa continuously needing to adapt and improve, there will remain the need to use a system for collecting voice data from its existing customers. This poses the problem for consumer trust and could create excess lawsuits. On the one hand, people do not purchase an Amazon product with Alexa to be listened to in the privacy of their home. However, Alexa will only improve with human interaction and analyzing these recordings creates the best product that consumers want to purchase. The Amazon employees that work with this data have signed non-disclosure agreements and cannot reveal any information regarding what they hear in their work. The employees must use internal chat rooms among each other if problems arise interpreting the recordings. Some employees have reported hearing criminal acts such as what appeared to be a sexual assault, but Amazon’s confidentiality protocol does not allow for this information to be released; even though Alexa could be listening, all voice recordings it collects will never be heard by the public.

            There will always be a fine balance between the appropriate levels of privacy versus product advancement for Alexa, but Amazon has created policy to increase consumer trust. These simple safety measures include the wake word “Alexa” must be spoken to trigger Alexa to begin a conversation and the blue light indicator on the device shows when it is recording. Consumers also have the ability to turn off the microphone and camera on their device, and they can speak statements such as, “Alexa, delete everything I said today,” to delete previous voice recordings. With these precautions in place, privacy concerns will continue to arise, especially in cases where children, neighbors, etc. are being recorded by Amazon Alexa and its competitors without purchasing the products. It will be a continuous search for the balance of privacy that consumers are willing to forfeit for cutting-edge technology in the home.

J. Logan Rigsbee

November 1, 2019