An Amazon.com Inc. team auditing Alexa users’ commands has access to location data and can, in some cases, easily find a customer’s home address, according to five employees familiar with the program.
The team, spread across three continents, transcribes, annotates and analyzes a portion of the voice recordings picked up by Alexa. The program, whose existence Bloomberg revealed earlier this month, was set up to help Amazon’s digital voice assistant get better at understanding and responding to commands.
Team members with access to Alexa users’ geographic coordinates can easily type them into third-party mapping software and find home residences, according to the employees, who signed nondisclosure agreements barring them from speaking publicly about the program.
While there’s no indication Amazon employees with access to the data have attempted to track down individual users, two members of the Alexa team expressed concern to Bloomberg that Amazon was granting unnecessarily broad access to customer data that would make it easy to identify a device’s owner.
Some of the workers charged with analyzing recordings of Alexa customers use an Amazon tool that displays audio clips alongside data about the device that captured the recording. Much of the information stored by the software, including a device ID and customer identification number, can’t be easily linked back to a user.
However, Amazon also collects location data so Alexa can more accurately answer requests, for example suggesting a local restaurant or giving the weather in nearby Ashland, Oregon, instead of distant Ashland, Michigan.
It’s unclear how many people have access to that system. Two Amazon employees said they believed the vast majority of workers in the Alexa Data Services group were, until recently, able to use the software.
A second internal Amazon software tool, available to a smaller pool of workers who tag transcripts of voice recordings to help Alexa categorize requests, stores more personal data, according to one of the employees.
After punching in a customer ID number, those workers, called annotators and verifiers, can see the home and work addresses and phone numbers customers entered into the Alexa app when they set up the device, the employee said. If a user has chosen to share their contacts with Alexa, their names, numbers and email addresses also appear in the dashboard.
Amazon appears to have been restricting the level of access employees have to the system.
One employee said that, as recently as a year ago, an Amazon dashboard detailing a user’s contacts displayed full phone numbers. Now, in that same panel, some digits are obscured.
Amazon further limited access to data after Bloomberg’s April 10 report, two of the employees said. Some data associates, who transcribe, annotate and verify audio recordings, arrived for work to find that they no longer had access to software tools they had previously used in their jobs, these people said. As of press time, their access had not been restored.