It’s time to break out your “Alexa, I Told You So” banners – because a Portland, Oregon, couple received a phone call from one of the husband’s employees earlier this month, telling them she had just received a recording of them talking privately in their home.
“Unplug your Alexa devices right now,” the staffer told the couple, who did not wish to be fully identified, “you’re being hacked.”
At first the couple thought it might be a hoax call. However, the employee – over a hundred miles away in Seattle – confirmed the leak by revealing the pair had just been talking about their hardwood floors.
The recording had been sent from the couple’s Alexa-powered Amazon Echo to the employee’s phone, who is in the husband’s contacts list, and she forwarded the audio to the wife, Danielle, who was amazed to hear herself talking about their floors. Suffice to say, this episode was unexpected. The couple had not instructed Alexa to spill a copy of their conversation to someone else.
According to Danielle, Amazon confirmed that it was the voice-activated digital assistant that had recorded and sent the file to a virtual stranger, and apologized profusely, but gave no explanation for how it may have happened.
“They said ‘our engineers went through your logs, and they saw exactly what you told us, they saw exactly what you said happened, and we’re sorry.’ He apologized like 15 times in a matter of 30 minutes and he said we really appreciate you bringing this to our attention, this is something we need to fix!”
She said she’d asked for a refund for all their Alexa devices – something the company has so far demurred from agreeing to.
Alexa, what happened? Sorry, I can’t respond to that right now
We asked Amazon for an explanation, and today the US giant responded confirming its software screwed up:
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.
For this to happen, something has gone very seriously wrong with the Alexa device’s programming.
The machines are designed to constantly listen out for the “Alexa” wake word, filling a one-second audio buffer from its microphone at all times in anticipation of a command. When the wake word is detected in the buffer, it records what is said until there is a gap in the conversation, and sends the audio to Amazon’s cloud system to transcribe, figure out what needs to be done, and respond to it.
A spokesperson for Amazon has been in touch with more details on what happened during the Alexa Echo blunder, at least from their point of view. We’re told the device misheard its wake-up word while overhearing the couple’s private chat, started processing talk of wood floorings as commands, and it all went downhill from there. Here is Amazon’s explanation:
The 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.