Hey Amazon, when it comes to privacy, is Alexa sound?

25 May 2018

Amazon Echo Dot (2nd Generation). Image: Zapp2Photo/Shutterstock

What is said on Alexa should stay on Alexa.

Amazon’s Alexa voice interface is in hot water after a US family claimed a private conversation was recorded and forwarded by the Echo platform.

Alexa is one of the hottest tech innovations of our age, enabling people to interact with the internet through the sound of their voice. People use it to find music, get the weather, book flights and much more. It is an always-on order-taker just sitting in your home, responsive to your every need.

Indeed, tech giants from Amazon to Apple and Google, and very soon Facebook, are falling over each other to capture a slice of this potentially lucrative scene.

However, Alexa’s integration into society has been rocked by the claims of a family from Portland in the US saying a private conversation was recorded by the diminutive device.

Say it ain’t so, Alexa?

The family members – who do not wish to be identified – said that their Echo smart speaker sent the recorded audio to the smartphone of a random person in Seattle who isn’t even in the family’s contact list.

According to US broadcaster Kiro 7, every room in the family home was wired with Amazon Echo devices to control the home’s heating, lights and security – the perfect IoT cabin.

However, their cosy smart home life was shattered when a call came in from an employee of one of the family members telling them that he had received audio files from someone from 176 miles away. The conversation concerning hardwood floors was played back to them. “Unplug that device now,” the colleague said.

“I felt invaded,” a family member called Danielle said. “A total privacy invasion. Immediately, I said: ‘I’m never plugging that device in again, because I can’t trust it.’”

Speak up, Amazon!

An Amazon engineer was called and admitted that it was something that needed to be fixed.

He told the homeowner: “Our engineers went through all of your logs. They saw exactly what you told us, exactly what you said happened, and we’re sorry.” Danielle continued: “He apologised like 15 times in a matter of 30 minutes. ‘This is something we need to fix.’”

In a statement, Amazon said: “Amazon takes privacy very seriously. We investigated what happened and determined this was an extremely rare occurrence. We are taking steps to avoid this from happening in the future.”

We’re speechless. What up, Amazon?

The incident raises questions that many smartphone and computer users have been asking for some time now about whether these always-on services – such as Alexa, Siri, Cortana or Google Home – are always listening.

Not only that, but what kind of audio-forwarding features are built into these devices?

It is a big question for most people but a fundamental one of Amazon, which is currently having its own iPhone-like moment thanks to Alexa and devices such as Echo and Dot.

Last year, the company received demands from US police authorities seeking audio files from Alexa related to a murder investigation.

Amazon has issued another statement on how the glitch occurred: “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.”

The whole affair will likely blow over but, for conspiracy theorists, it is manna from heaven.

Most owners of Alexa devices proudly proclaim how the technology is revolutionising their digital lives and helping them switch on lightbulbs with their voices.

But, for the next few days, we can imagine they’ll be speaking in hushed tones.

Amazon Echo Dot (2nd Generation). Image: Zapp2Photo/Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years