Contact Sales

All fields are required

OK Google, Stop Spying on me | SignalWire

OK Google, Stop Spying on me

According to the American Institutional Confidence Poll, Americans trust Amazon more than the government or the press. In fact, they are the second most trusted institution, only behind the military. But as our trust in technology grows, the amount of information we have on how these tech companies use our private data remains stagnant. It has recently been brought to light that the big 5 tech companies: Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft, have been using secret methods to train their AI assistants.

It’s no secret that these assistants record your voice commands, you can even access all of your recordings under the privacy settings, but you might be surprised to find out that personal assistants like Google Home have taken the spying a step further. I always assumed that these recordings were sitting in a giant database where artificial intelligence would search keywords for advertising purposes. It turns out that real human people are the ones listening to these recordings and they sit through roughly 1,000 a day…each. That’s two per minute.

All five tech companies have kept these methods a secret, until a few months ago when Apple’s contractors in Ireland started talking to reporters after recent layoffs. These same contractors have confessed that they have heard incredibly personal things such as medical information, personal conversations, small children playing video games, drug deals, and other private encounters. Of course, these assistants only record after hearing a wake word like “Alexa,” but we all know how often they are accidentally triggered. Especially if you sit on an Amazon fire remote (not that I’ve ever done that…)

The purpose of this invasive strategy is to make sure that personal assistants like Siri can function the best that they can by training them to better understand human speech patterns. Part of the contracting job is to note whether or not Siri was actually helpful in answering a command or if it was triggered accidentally. Microsoft has been doing something similar with Cortana where human contractors listen to Skype conversations and Cortana voice recordings. These contractors are tasked with transcribing and classifying voice commands into over 20 topic classifications (like gaming, email, events, home automation, media control and more).

After this story broke, Apple, Google, and Facebook have temporarily stopped using human contractors but Microsoft is continuing on after updating their privacy policy. The paraphrased statements from these companies go a little like, “Oops, we thought you knew. We’ll try to be more clear.” Despite the secrecy, these companies face no legal threat because you technically gave them permission in those long terms and services that nobody reads. To put consumers at ease, they promise to de-identify these voice snippets for privacy reasons but the recordings are still connected to location data.

But things get even more dystopian from here. As of May 2019, Amazon has filed a patent to start recording audio without the trigger of a wake word so that you can give commands more “naturally.” For example, this new technology would allow you to say “play some music, Alexa” instead of, “Alexa, play some music.” As of now, Alexa cannot listen or record without the wake word but this new feature would allow Alexa to “look backward” at things recently said before she heard her name. Once she hears the trigger word, Alexa would quickly go back over the previous phrase to process the command. In order to do that, it would need to constantly be recording, storing, and processing speech and then later delete anything that wasn’t relevant. While not currently in use, this feature would only escalate privacy concerns as these devices would always be recording for 10 to 30 seconds at a time. Amazon has officially stated that they only placed this application in case they want to use it in the future, but have no current plans to implement it.

As technology continues to grow at such a rapid pace, laws and privacy standards are struggling to keep up; we’re in new territory. In the past, Amazon has accidentally sent a random man thousands of recordings from a stranger’s Alexa. There have also been several cases in which Amazon has been forced to overturn recordings to the police when confronted with warrants and have been incredibly secretive about how often this happens.

For companies that rave about privacy, it doesn’t seem to be a huge concern. There’s a lot we don’t know about how much of our data is stored and what it’s used for, so next time Alexa wakes up without your permission, say hi to the guys listening in Ireland.