A woman called Danielle and her husband live in Portland. They have five Amazon Echo devices in their house. The Echo is a “smart speaker” – a small computer that allows people to use Amazon’s digital assistant, Alexa. The family used Alexa to answer questions, send messages, and to control the lighting, heating, and alarm system in their house.
About two weeks ago, Danielle’s husband got a phone call from a person who works for him. The man said, “unplug your Alexa devices right now. You’re being hacked.” The man thought someone was spying on them.
At first they thought the man was joking, but then he was able to tell them exactly what they had been talking about – hardwood floors. He had been sent a recording of their conversation. Danielle and her husband were so worried that they unplugged all of their Echoes.
This is not the first time that this has happened. Last year, Alexa sent another man’s conversation to a business friend of his. Like Danielle and her family, this man had no idea how his conversation got recorded and sent.
Smart speaker systems like the Echo are always recording. They listen for a “wake word”, such as “Alexa”, which tells them to start working. If they don’t hear the wake word, they throw out the recording about once a second. Once they get woken up, though, they send the recording off so the computer service can try to figure out what the user wants to do.
Amazon says that Alexa must have heard some small parts of the conversation that sounded like commands, such as “send message”. Amazon says that Alexa asked out loud before sending the message, and that Alexa heard something that sounded like “Right.”
Danielle says they were not talking to Alexa and they never heard Alexa say anything. Some people have pointed out that Alexa had to hear things wrong at least five times in order for this mistake to happen.
Amazon believes that it was an “unlikely…string of events” that made Alexa record and share the conversation. Amazon says it is working to make sure this kind of mistake doesn’t happen again.
Danielle has thought of another way to keep the mistakes from happening. “I’m never plugging that device in again, because I can’t trust it,” she said. Amazon has agreed to let the family return their Echoes and get their money back.
Many people have been worried about digital assistants. They think that when devices are always “listening”, the people around them will lose their privacy. Problems like the one Danielle’s family had with Alexa seem to support that idea.
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