The privacy concerns on Amazon’s Alexa digital assistant is getting bigger after reports suggested location data excavation by Amazon staff can lead to exposure of users’ home address.  

In early April, media reported that a dedicated Amazon data team has been decoding Alexa users’ commands and overhearing the recordings. That had triggered outrage over breaching privacy and allowing human intervention in the digital process.

Now the bigger risk is out. More than overhearing conversations, a latest Bloomberg report said Amazon staff can easily access location data of Alexa users and trace a customer’s home address. This was disclosed confidentially by some employees familiar with the program.

Amazon’s Alexa processing team known as Alexa Data Services team works from Boston to Romania and India. Their job is to transcribe, annotate and analyze voice recordings picked up by Alexa.

Following the reports, Amazon’s initially dismissed concerns around privacy as exaggerated noting the scan process was meant to make the digital voice assistant more efficient in reacting to commands.

The new report said it is easy for Alexa analysts to access Alexa users’ geographic coordinates and track down the user’s address and develop footprints of their virtual residences.

All they need to do is just type the details into third-party mapping software to sketch the users’ homes.

So far there no complaint has come that any Amazon employee misused data to track down individual users places. But concerns do not die down.

The issue is about Amazon granting access to customer data to people who may identify the credentials of the device’s owner.

Location data is most sensitive

Lindsey Barrett, a staff attorney and a professor at Georgetown Law’s Communications and Technology Clinic noted that it is a serious matter. Barrett noted that location data is the most sensitive data compared to any other user information.

 “Anytime someone is collecting where you are, that means it could go to someone else who could find you when you don’t want to be found,” she said.

Barrett noted that widespread access to location data from Alexa user recordings is a big red flag.

Amazon’s response

In response to location tracking of Alexa users, Amazon’s responded that “access to internal tools is highly controlled, and is only granted to a limited number of employees who require these tools to train and improve the service by processing an extremely small sample of interactions."   GettyImages-Amazon Alexa LG Senior Director of Home Entertainment Marketing Tim Alessi speaks about Amazon Alexa at the LG press conference at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center during CES 2019 in Las Vegas Nevada on January 7, 2019. Concerns are out over Amazon’s Alexa after reports talked about alleged location data excavation by Amazon staff. Photo: ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

Amazon is saying it collects location data only to enrich Alexa for making it more accurate to deliver answer requests.

However, the way Bloomberg report describes the location data exposure from a live demonstration is of concern.

In the demo, an Amazon team member applies a user’s coordinates into Google Maps and in less than a minute develops the image of the house and associated data.

The report also said Amazon has now restricted access to Alexa data and many sensitive tools to the staff after press reports on Alexa decoding by humans started appearing.  

Recurring reports highlighting the threat to users’ privacy under Alexa technology and the possibility of misuse of location data suggests that such products may emerge as a privacy nightmare for customers.