A family in Oregon had a rude awakening this week when it transpired that their Amazon Alexa device recorded a conversation between the husband and wife, without their knowing, and then forwarded it to a random person in their contacts list.
What’s your worst smart home-related nightmare?
The idea of Alexa/Google Assistant/insert smart virtual assistant here, listening to your private conversations and then revealing the intimate details of that conversation to others is pretty damn chilling.
Well that’s exactly what happened to a family in Portland, Oregon last week.
Unbeknownst to the husband and wife, an Amazon Echo device recorded a private conversation and then proceeded to forward the audio recording to an employee of the husband, who lived in another state.
The family went public with their story after the employee immediately informed the family of what had happened. She thought that their Alexa device had been hacked.
According to an explanation they provided to Recode, the following happened:
Echo woke up due to a word in background conversation sounding like “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. Alexa then asked out loud, “[contact name], right?” Alexa then interpreted background conversation as “right”. As unlikely as this string of events is, we are evaluating options to make this case even less likely.
Amazon is right — the number of coincidences in that explanation is mind-boggling. Although perhaps more comforting than the idea that your smart home devices are plotting against you to bring down your friendships and workplace relationships… 🤪
But this well-publicised bug does raise a few questions about the listening capabilities of Alexa.
As other commentators have raised, just how many false positives do these digital assistants generate? Sure, this example has become newsworthy, but is it the only one? BGR claims that there’s no data available from the big 3 — Amazon, Google and Apple — for these figures, which is a shame.
Experts have been warning consumers for a while that smart home devices are always on and always listening, but it’s been easy to brush our privacy fears under the carpet when we rely on the fact that they’ll only spring into life on a clear command: ‘Alexa’, in Amazon’s case.
But it seems like their designers have given these machines much more leeway than we would like to interpret background conversation as a springboard for them to start recording us at home, in private.
The news of this bug last week overshadowed the development of Alexa’s calendar management skills, once again confirming that this AI is growing its intelligence at a rapid rate.
With this new development, Alexa is now able to reschedule appointments and schedule based on your meeting partner’s availability, as long as they have their Alexa flexing her calendar management skills too.