Let's face it: yes, Alexa, Amazon's smart speaker, listens to us. Or rather, someone in Amazon's offices listens to what we say to Alexa. But let's go in order and, before giving in to controversy and conspiracy, let's try to understand how the artificial intelligence system works, which allows a smart speaker to respond correctly to our requests.
The news. On April 11th, Bloomberg published an inquiry in which he tells in great detail how behind Alexa there is a large group of employees and suppliers of Amazon who listens to the recordings of conversations between Alexa and its users 24 hours a day.
In short, it seems that from "Alexa turn on the light", to "Alexa let me hear the last song of Fedez" or "tell me what the weather will be like at the weekend in Riccione", what we say to ourselves with our intelligent speaker is not entirely private, and is more or less regularly listened to by human beings in the flesh.
But why is Amazon so interested in what users ask their home assistant? The goal of this "listening" on a large scale is not so much to sneak into the homes of millions of people around the world, as to gather useful information to improve the voice recognition system that allows Alexa to function. As explained in the Bloomberg survey, Amazon's listeners transcribe user request records, compare them with Alexa's response and, in the event of errors, make the necessary software corrections.
The human side of the AI. "When we think of a smart speaker we don't think that behind it there can be a human being who listens to what we say to him, " Florian Schaub, a computer privacy expert at the University of Michigan, explains to Bloomberg. "We are mistaken in believing that the answers come to us from Alexa as if by magic, but in reality the human component in a machine learning system is still fundamental". In other words, Amazon would do nothing but perfect the training of its artificial intelligence systems, which are explained "manually" what kind of response they must provide to a certain question.
Alexa's brain . So if Alexa knows how to respond to our requests, it's because someone taught her what to do: like her competitors, Amazon's AI also relies on neural networks, software that replicates the mechanisms of the human brain and provides answers based on large amounts of data. If you ask "find a Chinese person nearby", you know that you are probably looking for a restaurant and not a citizen of Beijing.
Ok, but … how do we put it with privacy? In the terms and conditions for using Alexa, in point 1.3, Amazon does not explicitly explain that someone listens to what we say. He simply says that our requests to the system are transmitted to the cloud to allow Alexa to learn and become increasingly intelligent.
However, Amazon has responded to Bloomberg by explaining how user privacy is a priority for the company, how audio files with recordings are not associated with users' personal data but only to their client code and how employees are unable to associate them with names and surnames.
Of course, as reported by Bloomberg, it can happen that operators exchange files between themselves, both for professional reasons - for example to investigate specific cases - but also to have a laugh about what they hear. Unprofessional, certainly, but … who could resist the temptation?
The magic word. It should be specified as Alexa, as well as Echo by Google or Siri by Apple, are not constantly listening to what we say, but they only wake up when they hear the activation word.
But it could happen that Alexa, once activated, records conversation tracks that should remain private, for example details about someone's health or information about a current account.
According to Amazon these files are marked as containing critical data and are not further processed. Or it could trigger inadvertently - for example if a character from a TV series or a movie pronounces the name "Alexa" - and start capturing what the people in the room say.
But what does the person say? If you try to ask Alexa if he is spying on you or if he works for the CIA, he will answer you that no, he does not work for them and that he sends the audio to Amazon only when it is activated.