It’s every Amazon Alexa owner’s worst nightmare – your private conversations not just being listened to, but shared with random contacts without your knowledge.
I don’t have an voice-activated assistant in my home.
Call me paranoid if you like, but I just don’t like the idea of some internet-enabled gadget always “listening” to what’s being said, waiting to hear if it’s being given a voice command. By my reckoning I’ve survived just fine for forty-cough years without a voice-activated assistant, so I’ll probably be just fine without one.
But lots of people have bought into the likes of the Amazon Alexa Echo, the Google Home, or the Apple HomePod, so maybe I’m just a dinosaur.
Well, if I am a Diplodocus I’m a slightly smugger Diplodocus this morning, as I read what one woman claims happened to her.
Danielle, who declined to provide her last name to CBS News affiliate Kiro7, says that she was having a private conversation with her husband… in her home which has a number of Amazon Alexa Echo devices.
All was fine until one day, out of the blue, one of her husband’s employees rang the house from his home 176 miles away in Seattle.
The employee’s message? “Unplug your Alexa devices right now… You’re being hacked.”
Somehow Danielle’s husband’s colleague had been sent a recording of the their private conversation. Danielle and her husband were skeptical at first that that could have happened, but then the conversation was played back to them down the phone and they couldn’t believe that they were hearing their private conversation replayed back to them.
Thankfully the conversation wasn’t embarrassing – simply a discussion of hardwood floors – but imagine how much sensitive or awkward things could have been?
“I felt invaded,” Danielle told Kiro 7. “A total privacy invasion. Immediately, I said, ‘I’m never plugging that device in again because I can’t trust it’.”
You can see the story in Danielle’s own words in this Kiro7 TV news report:
Danielle contacted Amazon directly to find out what had happened, and asked to be given a guarantee that it wouldn’t happen again.
An Amazon Alexa technician spoke to Danielle, confirmed that it was the voice-activated digital assistant that had recorded the conversation, and apologised.
But how did the privacy breach occur? Amazon gave the following explanation to the world’s curious press:
“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.”
Even if Amazon’s description of how the private conversation was sent to a random contact is correct, the fact that the chances of it happening to you are small is not that much consolation when you consider just how many millions of Amazon Alexas have been sold. Recent statistics suggest that more than one in four households have a smart speaker in their home, so a tiny percentage risk can still amount to a sizeable problem.
Danielle, however, does not believe the explanation offered. She says that she was stood right next to the Amazon Alexa device while she had the conversation, and that its volume was turned up to level 7. She believes she would have noticed if the device had behaved as Amazon describes.
Not only is Danielle not buying the description of how Alexa went wrong, she’s also not buying any more voice-activated devices from Amazon – and is waiting to see if she will be given a refund.