Brian Jacque always figured that whatever he said around his house was just between him and Alexa.
But Alexa, the voice behind Amazon’s Echo service, has some company.
Thousands of Amazon employees are listening to recordings of the commands that users like Jacque issue to their devices, according to Bloomberg News. Employees for the tech giant in Boston, Costa Rica, India, and Romania listen to recordings in an effort to improve Alexa’s performance.
“You’re buying a product to put in your personal home,” said Jacque, a Wilbraham native who now lives in Chicago but was strolling in downtown Boston on Thursday. “You’re doing personal things. You’re saying personal things. I don’t think it’s right at all.”
The Bloomberg disclosure was another public policy headache for Amazon amid a growing outcry from Senator Elizabeth Warren and others to break up technology behemoths. It also opened up another front in a debate that is roiling big technology: How much privacy are users willing to give up in the name of convenience?
“It is revelatory in just how much access and insight a company like Amazon has into your physical home, and if we keep going in this direction . . . we’ve got some real challenges ahead,” said David O’Brien, assistant research director for privacy and security at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. “We’ve traditionally thought of places like the home as being sacred.”
He said the questions are only going to become more pronounced as homes get smarter.
The capabilities of Alexa and other smart speakers are astounding compared with the voice technology of just a few years ago, and that rapid development is largely thanks to the huge amount of data generated by their tens of millions of users. Not only can Alexa order your groceries, set your thermostat, and answer your kids’ homework questions, it can understand nuanced human speech, something that is extremely difficult for computers to do.
In order to learn from that data, the algorithms that run the devices need human teachers to help them understand what they are hearing, and to learn from their mistakes.
Amazon said in a statement that it only annotates an extremely small number of interactions from a random subset of its customers in order to advance its technology.
“This information helps us train our speech recognition and natural language understanding systems, so Alexa can better understand your requests, and ensure the service works well for everyone,” the statement said.
The company added that employees do not have access to personally identifying information, and that the devices only capture data after they’ve been activated by a “wake word” — usually “Alexa.” Bloomberg, however, reported that some employees said they had reviewed audio captured after devices were awoken by accident.
To some in the technology world, the situation demonstrates how little the public knows about the workings of products that rely on user data to function.
“I think the industry assumed that if they tried to explain it, people wouldn’t understand it,” said Rob May, chief executive of Talla, a Boston startup that makes conversational artificial intelligence products for businesses.
To May, it’s no surprise that people would need to be a part of the process. Computers only get better at understanding language when they have constant guidance on what they’re doing wrong.
He suggested companies like Amazon instead try allowing users to correct the machines’ mistakes themselves. If the device misunderstands you, it could ask what you meant, and why you phrased your initial request a certain way.
Jennifer Lum, cofounder of the Cambridge artificial intelligence startup Forge.AI, said makers of smart speakers should, in any case, be transparent with users.
“All of the companies providing these consumer services,” she said, should “inform consumers around how their data is being used . . . in order to maintain trust.”
The question now is whether users will be comfortable using smart audio devices now that they know there are real people behind the curtain, and some of them could hear what’s happening in their private spaces.
Alexa and other smart home services are already touching off a new category of legal debates that would have been inconceivable just a few years ago.
Late last year, for instance, a New Hampshire judge ordered Amazon to turn over Alexa records related to a murder case. And the Bloomberg report said two of the workers “picked up what they believe was a sexual assault,” but that Amazon opted not to get involved.
Some observers predict that the blowback from the Alexa revelations will be relatively limited. Emily E. West, a professor of communication at the University of Massachusetts Amherst who studies consumer trends and is working on a book about Amazon, said numerous surveys have shown the company is one of the most trusted institutions in the United States.
“Amazon already knows a lot about you — what kind of toilet paper you want to buy, what kind of shows you’re watching. This is the bargain that Amazon is laying out: The more we know about you, the better we can serve you,” she said. “Interacting with people via voice is really just the next step beyond all the other kinds of information that we’re already sharing.”
And some people have long regarded smart speakers with suspicion. In interviews outside Faneuil Hall Thursday, several people said they already figured they were being recorded by the devices.
Tyler Sawyer, who was visiting from Burlington, Vt., said that’s why he doesn’t have one.
“I don’t like to have anything that can listen to me at all hours,” he said. “Other than my neighbors — we have pretty thin walls.”Andy Rosen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.