Alexa Mute

Amazon Discussing Alexa Recordings Privacy with EU Regulators

Amazon is facing a potential probe by the European Union into the recordings made by its Alexa voice assistant, according to a report by the BBC. This marks the latest in a rapid-fire series of reports about employees and contractors listening to voice assistant recordings, including many made unintentionally, followed by regulatory inquiries.

More Questions, Higher Stakes

Luxembourg’s National Data Protection Commission (CNPD) is discussing the issue of Alexa voice recordings with Amazon, although no official investigation is underway. As the CNPD is the head supervisory authority for Amazon in the EU, the stakes are higher than just an investigation by Luxembourg. Any investigation and subsequent consequences would apply to the entire EU.

Recordings made by voice assistants are listened to by people in order to spot errors and improve how well they function. The question that has people concerned is what is actually recorded and who is listening. Information about the person in the recordings is supposed to be removed before anyone hears it, but many of the reports have mentioned that personal information discussed out loud in some of the audio recordings.

Accidental awakenings of the devices are all too common, with 28.5 percent of smart speaker users noticing false wake-ups at least once a day, and 43.7 percent at least once per month according to a 2018 Voicebot survey. As a result, plenty of things are overheard, recorded, and then listened to that should not be.

Stepping Back from Overhearing

The news about Amazon Alexa recordings originally came out in April, but the questions really started to take off this summer. Revelations about Google Assistant and Apple’s Siri in July were quickly followed by a report about Microsoft’s Cortana voice assistant only this week.

The companies are clearly keen to limit regulatory backlash over their programs, even as Google is already facing questions from the German government. Both Google and Apple paused their quality assurance listening programs. In Google’s case, the pause impacts the entirety of the EU while Apple applied the halt globally. Amazon hasn’t followed suit as of yet, but their service agreement has new language to make the fact that humans will listen to some of the recordings very clear. The company has also added a way for people to opt out so that if they don’t want their recordings used for the improvement of Alexa via people listening to any recordings, they can do so.

There are few companies left with popular consumer voice assistants who haven’t yet faced criticism over how they handle the voice recordings they use for improving their voice assistants. Now, it just remains to be seen if and how they can accommodate the concerns of their customers while still iterating on their technology.


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