Amazon holds onto Alexa data even if audio files are deleted

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Amazon has confessed that the stored information it obtains through speech interactions with the company’s Alexa and Echo systems is not always deleted — even after a customer decides to remove the audio files from their account. The revelations, explicitly described by Amazon in a letter to Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), released today and dated 28 June, shed even more light on the privacy procedures of the company in relation to its digital voice assistant.

The responses are a follow-up to a Coons query dating back to last month when Coons asked how long the firm has been holding on to Echo interactions speech recordings and transcripts. Amazon verified some of the claims in the letter of this week. ” We retain customers’ voice recordings and transcripts until the customer chooses to delete them, ” says the letter.

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Following a CNET inquiry released in May, a question also arose as to whether Amazon held on to text transcripts of speech interactions with Alexa, even after a user chose to delete the corresponding audio. Amazon says that some of those transcripts or information gleaned from the transcripts are not actually removed, both because the company has to scrub data from different parts of its global data storage systems and because, in some cases, Amazon chooses to retain the data without telling the user.

In its reaction, Brian Huseman, Amazon’s vice president of public policy, said the firm is involved in an ” ongoing effort to ensure those transcripts do not remain in any of Alexa’s other storage systems. ” In other words, even if a user deletes the audio version manually, some text versions are still saved for an unspecified quantity of moment in distinct storage schemes. However, in some instances where Amazon believes that deleting information would hinder Alexa’s function set, the firm chooses to keep some version of the information.

Amazon claims that it does not hold on to the audio files, but if someone utilizes Alexa to call a Uber or place a food delivery order, for example, it may hold on to transaction data. ” We do not store the audio of Alexa’s response. However, we may still retain other records of customers’ Alexa interactions, including records of actions Alexa took in response to the customer’s request, “wrote Huseman.

The letter also points out that any transaction or regularly planned activity a user makes with an Echo device can be recorded by the business and even developers of Alexa’s abilities. This, says Amazon, guarantees that the task is user-friendly and readily replicable.

” And for other types of Alexa requests — for instance, setting a recurring alarm, asking Alexa to remind you of your anniversary, placing a meeting on your calendar, sending a message to a friend — customers would not want or expect deletion of the voice recording to delete the underlying data or prevent Alexa from performing the requested task, ” clarified Huseman.

Much attention has been paid in recent months to Alexa’s internal functioning, following an April Bloomberg study outlining how thousands of staff, many of whom are contract workers and some of whom are not even directly employed by Amazon, have access to both voice and text transcripts of Alexa’s interactions that could, in principle, be used to collect data about the private lives of a user. Amazon argues that this information is reviewed and annotated by humans to enhance Alexa over time, using machine learning techniques to train the underlying software for artificial intelligence.

But the absence of clarity about how and to what end Amazon collects and stores this data, and why it’s confusing to get it totally erased from the company’s servers, has brought renewed scrutiny into what Amazon claims are industry-standard practices for businesses building AI-dependent instruments and services.

The stakes are only increasing as Alexa is now handling delicate data on patient health. Amazon has also been fired by child and privacy advocacy organizations claiming that the firm is violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) by gathering and storing information with its Amazon Echo Dot Kids machines on children under the age of 13.

“Amazon’s response leaves open the possibility that transcripts of user voice interactions with Alexa are not deleted from all of Amazon’s servers, even after a user has deleted a recording of his or her voice, ” Coon said in a declaration. ” The American people deserve to understand how their personal data is being used by tech companies, and I will continue to work with both consumers and companies to identify how to best protect Americans’ personal information.”

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