EU privacy watchdogs are gearing up to police digital assistants after revelations that Amazon workers listened in on people’s conversations with their Alexa digital assistants.
It was reported last April that Amazon had a team of thousands of workers around the world listening to Alexa audio requests with the goal of improving the software.
Similar issues have been raised over Google and Apple’s digital assistants, triggering privacy fears across the world, as intimate conversations in some users’ homes were laid bare to technicians fine-tuning the technology.
EU regulators are now working on a common approach on how to police the technology, said Tine Larsen, head of the data protection authority in Luxembourg, where the US retail company has its European base and employs a staff of more than 2,000.
“Because it’s a question of principle, the members of the European Data Protection Board should work out a common position in line with the consistency mechanism to apply data-protection rules in a harmonised way for this type of treatment,” she said.
The revelations of the snooping into people’s homes came after regulators in Europe were handed beefed-up powers with its General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in May 2018, including the right to levy fines of up to 4% of a company’s global annual sales for the most serious violations. However, the move towards common guidelines for digital assistants means companies should avoid fines for now.
Ms Larsen’s comments echo those of Helen Dixon, head of the Irish watchdog, responsible for overseeing the likes of Apple and Google.
In November, she said that the regulator first has to “bottom out fully on whether it’s true” when companies say they need to do transcripts of people’s interactions with the assistants.
That’s why a focus will be first on coming up with guidelines, instead of investigations or inquiries, she said. Amazon said in a statement that “to help improve Alexa, we manually review and annotate a small fraction of 1% of Alexa requests” and that “access to data annotation tools is only granted to a limited number of employees who require them to improve the service.”
EU regulators are working on a common position on the privacy issues surrounding voice-assistant systems, said Johannes Caspar, head of the watchdog in Hamburg.
“We urgently need common and reliable industry standards on this to better regulate” privacy protections, he said.