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Do Virtual Assistants Create A Privacy Risk For Employers?

Bloomberg recently reported that Amazon employs thousands of individuals around the world to listen to conversations with Alexa that are recorded by the Amazon Echo.

Amazon confirmed the story, but stated that employees only listen to an "extremely small number of interactions from a random set of customers." Amazon does not explicitly tell those who use Alexa that its employees listen to their conversations. However, it does state in the frequently asked question section that it uses "requests to Alexa to train our speech recognition and natural language understanding systems."

Thousands of full-time workers and contractors for Amazon in several countries, including the United States, Costa Rica, and Romania, transcribe Alexa voice commands and re-enter them into the software in order to improve Alexa's comprehension. In order to do so, each member of the team listens to as many as 1,000 recorded conversations per shift. 

The employees described many of the audio clips as "mundane," but some of the clips were "potentially criminal." For example, an employee listened to an audio clip that may have recorded sexual assault. Amazon employees do not know the full names or addresses of individuals they listen to, but do know the device's serial number and the associated Amazon account number.

Amazon faces other accusations of privacy violations associated with Alexa. In 2018, an Echo recorded a conversation, unbeknownst to the user, and sent the audio file to an Amazon employee in Seattle. Amazon "explained" the incident by saying that the device's microphones misunderstood a series of words, which triggered the accidental email. Jordan Valinsky "Amazon reportedly employs thousands of people to listen to your Alexa conversations" cnn.com (Apr. 11, 2019).

Commentary

The right of privacy is limited at work, but it still exists, especially as to private conversations.

Organizations may want to be cautious about installing virtual assistants or other voice recognition software in the workplace. The microphones on these devices are highly sensitive and always on. If you do install these devices, keep them out of certain areas and require employees to have all sensitive conversations in these unmonitored locations.

If your organization uses virtual assistants or any other voice recognition software, you must train your employees on the software and its risks. Remind them that the device's microphones are always on and can hear from far away. There is the potential for the software to record anything they say near the device and send it to a third party. Train employees to be aware of these devices and never have conversations about confidential or proprietary information in a room with a voice recognition device.

In addition, using voice recognition software and not properly warning employees of the potential that their conversations could be shared can lead to allegations of privacy violations. If possible, give employees the option to not use these devices in their workspace.

When using virtual assistants or other voice recognition software in the workplace, opt out of allowing the program to record your commands or use conversations to improve performance. In the case of Alexa, users can do so in the privacy settings section of the Alexa app. Regularly delete recordings stored in your voice-activated smart devices.

Even if your organization does not use virtual assistants, you should still create a policy concerning employees' use of voice recognition software on their personal devices in the workplace. If employees use Siri or Google Assistant on their personal smartphones, their devices could still pick up workplace conversations that should be kept confidential. State whether or not employees are allowed to use their own voice recognition software as well as what precautions they must take to protect proprietary information.

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