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A team at Amazon that listens to recorded voice commands from Amazon Alexa users could in some cases find out where a user lives. That’s what five employees who are familiar with the program say in front of Bloomberg.

The team’s main goal is to convert the verbal requests to Alexa into text, and analyze that text and data. This will help the speech assistant to better understand and respond to certain requests. The team works on three different continents.

However, the five employees who spoke to Bloomberg have concerns about the team’s access to user data. The team would have access to users’ location data. And with access to geographical coordinates, it is possible to enter them into third-party mapping software, to find home addresses. Bloomberg’s sources are afraid that Amazon offers unnecessarily wide access to user data.

Amazon states in a statement that access to internal tools “is highly controlled, and is only given to a small number of employees who need these tools to train and improve the service, by processing an extremely small proportion of interactions”. The company also claims to have a zero tolerance policy on misuse of the data, and to regularly monitor employee access.

Collecting data

A number of employees who analyze recordings of Alexa customers use an Amazon tool that displays audio clips alongside data about the device that made the recording. Much of the information stored by the software – such as a device ID number – cannot simply be linked back to a user. However, the location data is collected when, for example, a request is made for a local restaurant or for the weather forecast of a nearby city.

Bloomberg saw a demonstration of the software, in which a team member of Amazon pasted the coordinates of a user in Google Maps. In less than a minute, the employee went from recording a command from a user to a picture of that user’s house and its address.

How many people have access to that system is unclear. Two employees say they think the vast majority of employees in the Alexa Data Services group had access to the software until recently.

Personal data

A second internal software tool from Amazon stores more personal data, according to an employee. This tool is available to a smaller group of employees who tag transcripts of call recordings to help Alexa categorize requests. After typing a customer ID number, those employees can see the customer’s home and work address and phone numbers that were added to the Alexa app when the device was set up.

If a user has chosen to share his data with Alexa, his name, phone number and email address will also appear in the dashboard. The data is in the system so that when a customer says “send a message to Laura”, human reviewers can check that the transcribers have written down the name correctly. On this basis, the software learns to link the request to the Laura in the contact list.

It seems that the access that workers have to the system has been limited. A year ago, for example, there were still full telephone numbers, but now a few figures have been misappropriated, according to an employee.

This news article was automatically translated from Dutch to give Techzine.eu a head start. All news articles after September 1, 2019 are written in native English and NOT translated. All our background stories are written in native English as well. For more information read our launch article.