Amazon looks to expand Alexa's world amid growing privacy concerns

id="article-body" class="row" section="article-body"> David Limp, Amazon's hardware chief, at last year's Alexa event in Seattle.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET Alexa has had a lot of explaining to do. Since Amazon's voice assistant debuted in 2014, the company has convinced millions of people to invite Alexa into their homes. They use it to play music, serve up the news and answer trivia questions. This year, though, the online retailing giant faced a backlash after news broke that human reviewers were sometimes listening to recordings of users' private conversations with Alexa.

Those privacy problems will likely cast a shadow on Amazon's annual product launch, which takes place Wednesday in Seattle. There, the company is expected to unveil the latest devices in its Alexa-powered Echo speaker lineup.

Alexa has dominated the smart speaker race against Apple's Siri and Google Assistant. Echo devices have flown off Amazon's digital shelves, particularly during Prime Day, when the company's hockey-puck-shaped Dot topped the sales charts. Now, of the 76 million smart speakers perched in US homes and businesses, 70% are Echo devices, according to Consumer Intelligence Research Partners. 

Now playing: Watch this: Amazon Alexa 2018 event: Editors react 9:57 Amazon isn't alone in trying to address privacy issues. Google, Apple, Microsoft and Facebook have also admitted to listening in on recorded user conversations with smart assistants. Amazon has responded by introducing a series of privacy-friendly features in hopes of allaying consumers' concerns. 

"They've at least been responsive to the issue," said Bret Kinsella, a voice and AI researcher and best tech magazine - founder and editor of "Whether everyone thinks it's responsive enough is another issue."

Though they capture most of the attention, Echo speakers aren't the only gadgets Amazon is expected to launch. In recent months, rumors have circulated that the company is working on Alexa-powered wearables, such as glasses, and wireless earbuds that resemble Apple's AirPods. The company is also said to be working on a premium speaker that could compete against the Google Home Max and Apple HomePod. Perhaps most intriguing: an Alexa home robot on wheels, which Bloomberg reported in July.

The new Echo Show 5 has a built-in privacy shutter for its camera.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET In past years, Amazon has used the event to refresh its Echo lineup, often adding softer and sleeker designs. It's also broadened Alexa's capabilities and the places it can communicate. Last year, as part of a flurry of new devices and features, it introduced the Echo Auto device to bring the digital assistant into more cars, as well as Alexa Guard, a new home-security feature - that can alert users when Alexa hears glass break or a smoke alarm.

Further privacy settings could be announced at Wednesday's event.

"At Amazon, customer trust is at the center of everything we do and we take customer privacy very seriously," an Amazon spokesperson said in a statement. "We continuously review our practices and procedures to ensure we're providing customers with the Best tech Magazine ( - ) experiences and privacy choices. We provide customers with several privacy controls, including the ability to review and delete their voice recordings and microphone- and camera-off controls."

The human reviewer dilemma

The spread of Alexa-powered gadgets means more devices that could be vulnerable to privacy slipups.

In April, Bloomberg reported that human reviewers listened to Amazon Alexa recordings. The reviewers deciphered garbled or noisy recordings and then fed them back to Alexa so it could better understand its millions of users. That's been a common practice in refining voice-operated products, though one most consumers haven't known about. Reviewers didn't have access to the full names or addresses of users.

Bloomberg's reporters uncovered troubling cases, though. In some instances, a reviewer heard a child screaming or a woman singing off-key in the shower. In the months that followed, the situation cascaded across the tech industry. In July, a contractor leaked more than a thousand recordings of people using Google Assistant to a Belgium-based news service. Later that month, The Guardian reported on contractors listening to recordings made by Apple's Siri assistant, including instances of private doctor-patient discussions and people having sex. Last month, Microsoft acknowledged human reviewers could be listening to conversations with its Cortana assistant.

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