SACRAMENTO (KPIX) — Called the “Anti-Eavesdropping Act,” a bill being considered by the California legislature would require users to opt in before companies like Amazon, Facebook, Google and Apple could store and use voice recordings.

Proposed by Jordan Cunningham (R-San Luis Obispo), AB 1395 is also supported by a number of Democrats, including Buffy Wicks (D-Oakland).

Last month, Bloomberg reported that thousands of Amazon employees are listening to recordings from Alexa devices. Those employees can see a user’s first name, account number and the device serial number.

According to Amazon, “We only annotate an extremely small sample of Alexa voice recordings in order [to] improve the customer experience. For example, this information helps us train our speech recognition and natural language understanding systems so Alexa can better understand your requests, and ensure the service works well for everyone.”

While Amazon claims the recordings only happen when someone uses the “wake word” like “Alexa,” employees said they could hear about a hundred recordings a day that were private and were triggered when the device was turned on accidentally.

This system of storing recordings and allowing humans to review them is not disclosed in the Alexa Terms of Use. The only place it is referenced is in a “FAQ” section in response to the question “How do my voice recordings improve Alexa?” where it says, “we use your requests to Alexa to train our speech recognition and natural language understanding systems.”

Amazon’s Alexa works by recording a person’s command, like “Alexa, what time is it?”

That recording is transmitted to Amazon’s Alexa Voice Services, a cloud-based system which parses the recording to determine what you’re asking and then delivers the requested information. All this is done very quickly but, once the request has been fulfilled, there’s still the matter of that recording.

If you use Amazon’s Alexa or Google Assistant, there’s no way to force the companies to purge your recording right after the task is complete.

While Amazon says users can opt-out of the “speech training” program (i.e., prevent their recordings from being stored and used by Amazon) according to Bloomberg, “The company says people who opt out of that program might still have their recordings analyzed by hand over the regular course of the review process.”

It thus appears that a user can’t prevent the company from storing their recordings after the task is complete. According to Amazon, users can manually delete their recordings after the fact. (Though it is not clear if that deletion also eliminates the recordings stored by Amazon on their servers.)

Apple’s Siri does not appear to offer an option when it comes to recordings. According to Apple’s iOS Security statement, Siri “user voice recordings are saved for a six-month period so that the recognition system can utilize them to better understand the user’s voice. After six months, another copy is saved, without its identifier, for use by Apple in improving and developing Siri for up to two years.”

Asm. Cunningham’s bill would require these companies to get affirmative, explicit permission from users before they could store recordings beyond what is necessary to respond to the command.

“I’ve heard from constituents they widely support the idea that their personal conversations that occur in the intimacy of their home should remain private,” he said. “And they’re not giving permission to a company to store and retain those recordings by buying a speaker.”

Tech trade groups are opposed to the bill, including the Internet Association which sent KPIX the following statement: “IA opposes AB 1395 because, as drafted, it would render voice-activated smart speakers inoperable until impractical requirements, such as written consent, are satisfied to carry out necessary functions like data storage.”

Asm. Cunningham has promised to keep working with industry groups to make sure the opt-in is not unnecessarily onerous but said “I think it’s important we have safeguards that protect people’s privacy.”

He’s not alone. The bill is supported by California Civil Liberties Advocacy and has bipartisan support.

The Assembly Committee on Privacy and Consumer Protection recently voted 9-0 with 2 abstaining to pass the bill and its next stop is the Assembly appropriations committee.

Comments (3)
  1. Mark Lehman says:

    What about the ACLU?