News broke out earlier this week that Amazon’s Alexa assistant recorded a private conversation between two people and then sent that recording to a third party. Alexa, of course, is supposed to listen to everything you say but only act when you utter the designated hotwords that invoke the assistant. Only then is Alexa supposed to follow your commands, and send messages to others, if that’s an ability you have activated on your Echo smart speakers.
Amazon explained what went wrong with this particular Echo speaker, and it all sounds like a series of unfortunate events. It also sounds like Amazon might have a real Alexa to fix.
Amazon explained to Recode what caused this privacy infringing incident. Here’s what happened — we’ve broken down Amazon’s statement into all the steps Alexa went through to dispatch the message:
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 customer’s 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.”
All this sounds extremely unlikely but it also kind of explains what happened perfectly. To recap, the woman was talking to her husband and a partial recording of their chat was then sent to one of his employees who lives in a different state.
It’s always possible that one of the two people in the chat said a word that sounded like Alexa, triggering a sequence of events as described above. They may have also mentioned a name that sounded just like the name of the man’s employee and used words that may have been interpreted as confirmation to send a message.
But, no matter how you look at it, this is a serious issue. Apparently, Alexa can misinterpret its own hotword, which is definitely not something you want from the assistant.
Also, notice that Amazon doesn’t say how Alexa’s recording of the chat was triggered. I mean she must have somehow interpreted some of those words as a command to record the chat. Amazon’s explanation jumps from Alexa invocation straight to the message sending part.
One other issue to consider is that the couple never heard Alexa’s replies. I mean, if you do hear Alexa talking to you without having invoked her, you’d paused gossiping and see what’s that all about. Is it possible that Alexa was too far away from the conversation to correctly identify words and be heard? The original report does say that every room of the house had Echo speakers in them. The woman said the device never told them it was preparing to send the recording.
On the other hand, this isn’t a frequent occurrence, or the web would be filled with similar stories. But if you want to make sure this doesn’t happen to you, then simply avoid sending any kind of messages over Alexa. I know, that’s extremely annoying, isn’t it? You know what’s even more annoying? That you have to contact Amazon customer service to disable the feature — instructions are available over at BuzzFeed.