Amazon’s Alexa has been caught recording the private conversation of a Portland-based coupled in the US, and then sending that recording to someone else in the family’s contact list. All of this was done without the family reportedly issuing any command for Alexa. The incident was first reported by Kiro 7 ,a local news station in Portland, Oregon in the US and has since then been picked up by various mainstream news outlets in the US. Amazon has also responded to the report that Alexa was allegedly spying on the private conversation of the user, saying this was an extremely rare event.
According to the Kiro 7 report, the woman Danielle, who did not wish for her last name to be used, got a call two weeks ago, with the other person telling them to unplug their Alexa devices. “You are being hacked,” is what the caller told Danielle and her husband, who have an Amazon Echo speaker in their home. Alexa is what powers the Amazon Echo speakers. It also appears that the Echo speaker was used to control the home’s smart functions like heating, lighting, security system. Controlling smart home functions is a common feature on many of these home speakers, including the one from Google.
The report points out the call warning them to unplug their Alexa devices was from one of her husband’s employees in Seattle to whom Alexa had sent the private conversation. “I felt invaded…A total privacy invasion. Immediately I said, ‘I’m never plugging that device in again, because I can’t trust it,” she told Kiro 7 news. Later an Amazon engineer went through their logs, and apologised over the issue. However, Danielle and her husband were not given any specifics on what caused the Alexa issue in the first place.
Amazon in its response to Kiro 7 said this was an extremely rare occurrence and it was investigating the incident. “We are taking steps to avoid this from happening in the future,” said the statement to the news station.
However in a more detailed statement issued to The Verge, the company has said that Echo woke up because it a heard similar to Alexa. “Then, the subsequent conversation was heard as a “send message” request. At which point, Alexa said out loud “To whom?” At which point, the background conversation was interpreted as a name in the customers contact list,” said the statement. According to Amazon, Alexa had asked for a confirmation of the contact name to which the recording was sent, and it interpreted the background sound as a yes. The Portland couple however, says they gave no such confirmation.
Amazon claims this is an “unlikely…string of events.” The statement ends saying, “…We are evaluating options to make this case even less likely.” While Amazon insists this is a rare event which triggered recording of a private conversation between a couple, the incident will raise questions around privacy when it comes to using these home speakers. Previously Alexa and Echo speakers were in the news for laughing randomly, even when no particular command was given. Users had reported in March this year, that Alexa was laughing creepily in the background and many were scared by the same.
Amazon had then admitted the problem, and said it would roll out a fix for the same. The company said it would disable the phrase “Alexa, laugh” and instead change the command to “Alexa, can you laugh?” to ensure less false positives.
But with the latest case of Alexa recording and then sending a private conversation without user’s knowledge, questions will be raised around what triggered this. Amazon is yet to clarify this, but many users of the home speakers will ask whether there are cases where Alexa could be recording without their explicit permission.
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