A woman from Portland, Oregon named Danielle said that Amazon Echo invaded the privacy of her family after Alexa – a voice-controlled smart speaker – recorded her private conversation and sent it to the phone of one of her husband’s employees in Seattle, who was in the family’s address book. The recipient of the audio recording contacted the family and told them to unplug the Alexa device as they were being hacked.
As per Amazon, the woman has an Echo device in every room of the house to control the heat, lights and security system, but the family wasn’t hacked. The devices probably misinterpreted the “wake word” and voice commands in one of their conversations.
“My husband and I would joke and say I’d bet these devices are listening to what we’re saying,” said Danielle, who did not want to reveal her last name.
Amazon Echo’s microphone constantly listens to the wake word where users can set as “Alexa,” “Echo,” or “Computer.” As soon as the Echo recognizes the wake word, a blue ring light will appear.
According to the emailed statement from the Amazon spokesperson, Echo woke up upon hearing the background conversation which sounded like “Alexa.” The next conversation was heard as ‘send a message.’ Alexa asked out loud ‘To whom?,’ the device interpreted the background conversation as a name in the customer’s contact list. Alexa then responded, ‘[Contact name], right?;’ Alexa again interpreted the background conversation as, ‘Right.’
The conversation was sent back to Danielle. She listened to it and couldn’t believe someone 176 miles away heard it too. She called Amazon and said an Alexa engineer investigated. However, the engineer did not provide specifics about why it happened, or if it’s a widespread issue.
“I felt invaded,” she said. “A total privacy invasion. Immediately I said, ‘I’m never plugging that device in again because I can’t trust it.'”
The customers can block contacts from calling and messaging, or turn off calling by saying “Don’t disturb me.” But the case of Danielle shows that it is still possible for Alexa to mistakenly record and share a private conversation with an unintended recipient.
This is not the first time Alexa frightened Echo users. In March, the owners of the devices claimed that the speaker spontaneously starts laughing.
Amazon responded to these claims saying: “We are changing that phrase to be, ‘Alexa, can you laugh?’ which is less likely to have false positives, and we are disabling the short utterance, ‘Alexa, laugh.’ We are also changing Alexa’s response from simply laughter to, ‘Sure, I can laugh,’ followed by laughter.”