In a series of highly unlikely (and unfortunate) events, an Amazon Echo device has reportedly recorded a private conversation and delivered the message to an employee of the Echo’s owner. This incident is raising a lot of questions about digital assistants and just how they protect privacy of their owners.
A Comedy of Errors?
It was a normal day for Alexa, the voice assistant resident inside the Amazon Echo.
Her owners were home, having a conversation, when she heard her name, “Alexa,” focusing her attention on the voices. Then someone told her to record the conversation, as she did, being a faithful automated assistant. Once sufficient data was recorded, she was told to send the recording off to an employee, who was certain to gain great insights from the information contained therein. After a verbal confirmation that the owners did, indeed, want the employee to hear the message, Alexa sent it off, then settled back into passive listening mode.
As unbelievable as this scenario sounds, this is what Amazon says happened when the Seattle couple’s private recording was sent to an unsuspecting recipient from their contact list. They had no idea until the person Alexa had messaged called to tell them that they were being spied on by a little round speaker. The news was broken by Portland’s KIRO 7, while Amazon was already working on a fix for this highly unlikely situation, were it to repeat itself.
Echos, Google Home and the Apple HomePod all work in the same basic way.
They practice passive listening while they’re powered, hoping to hear their wake word, which is often a personalized name. In this case, it was “Alexa.” When Echo hears “Alexa,” it stands by, waiting for a command (or string of commands thanks to a recent update). If it doesn’t hear anything that sounds like a known phrase, it goes back into passive listening mode after a brief time.
Things seem a little weirder when Echo does hear a command after the wake word. “Alexa, what’s the weather?” will send her lights blinking while she goes to the Internet to find the latest. In seconds, a response. “It’s 92 degrees and sunny in Miami, Florida.” This magic is a combination of natural language decoding algorithms, an artificial intelligence engine and a lot of programming, much of which is security to keep these conversations private.
It’s understandable that users would be wary in the presence of their devices, but Amazon has been working furiously to make Echo more useful and less intimidating, including reducing the chances that nothing like this episode repeats itself.
“As unlikely as this string of events is, we are evaluating options to make this case even less likely,” a spokesperson from Amazon assured the shaken Echo owner and anyone else who may have security concerns.