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– Ethics of Eavesdropping

It has been recently reported (e.g. see: Bloomberg News ) that the likes of Amazon, Google and Apple employ people to listen to sample recordings made by the Amazon Echo, Google Home and Siri, respectively. They do this to improve the speech recognition capabilities of these devices.

Ethical Issues

What are the ethical issues here? The problem is not with these companies using people to assist in the training of machine-learning algorithms in order to improve the capabilities of the devices. However there are issues with the following:

  • While information like names and addresses may not accompany the speech clips being listened to, it seems quite possible that other identification would potentially enable tracing back to this information. This seems unnecessary for the purpose of training the speech recognition algorithms.

  • It has been reported that employees performing this function in some companies, have been required to sign agreements that they will not disclose what they are doing. To my mind this seems wrong. If the function is necessary and innocent then companies should be open about it.

  • These companies do not always make it clear to purchasers of devices that they may be recorded, and listened to, by people. This should be clear to users in all advertising and documentation.

  • The most contentious ethical issue is what to do if any employee of one of these companies hears a crime being committed or planned. Another situation arises if an employee overhears something that is clearly private, like bank details, or information that, although legal, could be used to blackmail. In the first situation, are these companies to be regarded as having the same status as a priest in a confessional or any other person that might hear sensitive information? A possible approach is that whatever law applies to human individuals, should also apply to the employees and the companies like Amazon, Google and Apple. So in the UK for example, some workers (such as social workers and teachers) who are likely to occasionally hear sensitive information relating to potential harm to minors, are required to report it. In the second case, companies could be legally liable for losses arising from the information being revealed or used against the user.

It seems likely that companies are reluctant to admit publicly that interactions with these devices may be listened to by people, is because it might affect sales. That’s does not seem a good enough reason.