Fears that smart speakers surreptitiously record users have been around since the devices’ inception. While manufacturers claim this never happens, it looked as if the paranoia was justified when an Amazon Echo sent a couple’s conversation to a friend without their knowledge. But according to the tech giant, this was the result of a series of misinterpretations by Alexa.
The Portland, Oregon, couple that owns the Echo in question only found out what was happening when an employee of the husband rang to say, “unplug your Alexa devices right now. You’re being hacked.”
"We unplugged all of them and he proceeded to tell us that he had received audio files of recordings from inside our house," said wife Danielle. "At first, my husband was, like, 'no you didn't!' And the (recipient of the message) 'You sat there talking about hardwood floors.' And we said, 'oh gosh, you really did hear us," she told KIRO-TV in Seattle.
After investigating the incident, Amazon found it came about through digital assistant Alexa mishearing words from the couple’s conversation. The always-listening device was initially activated when it heard a word that sounded like “Alexa.” It then interpreted part of the conversation as “send message,” at which point it asked, “to whom?” The AI thought it heard one of the names from the couple’s contact list. It asked for confirmation and heard “right” in the background conversation.
Amazon said this was an “extremely rare occurrence,” and that “unlikely as this string of events is, we are evaluating options to make this case even less likely.”
Danielle said she was hoping to receive a refund for her Alexa devices, but added that representatives were unwilling to do so.
Back in April, an Amazon patent was discovered that would allow Alexa to listen in on conversations to help identify owners’ tastes.