Security

No, Alexa isn't spying on you, but be careful with sensitive conversations

A Portland couple claim that their Amazon Echo arbitrarily recorded a conversation and sent it to someone in their contact list.

In a report from KIRO TV, a couple in Portland claim that their Amazon Echo smart speaker recorded a conversation and transmitted the conversation to someone in their contact list—an employee of the couple—in Seattle.

The owner of the Echo—who is identified only as Danielle in the original report—proceeded to unplug the Echo devices in their home, which were used to control various smart home devices, and contacted Amazon. Danielle is seeking a refund for the devices from Amazon, a request that the company has not yet agreed to.

According to Danielle, Amazon's support agent indicated that "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." According to the report, she also claims that the support agent "apologized like 15 times in a matter of 30 minutes." The original report indicates that "the device did not audibly advise her it was preparing to send the recording, something it's programmed to do."

SEE: Internet of Things policy (Tech Pro Research)

That point is suspect. Amazon did confirm that the Echo sent the conversation to the person in the contact list, but the subject of the KIRO story and Amazon differ in the play-by-play. Amazon's statement to our sister site ZDNet about the issue indicates that the Echo smart speaker provided audible feedback twice during this course of events:

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.

While individually minute, KIRO's original story has a number of precision problems, which make claims about this incident suspect. The report claims "the recorded audio was sent to the phone of a random person in Seattle, who was in the family's contact list." This statement is at odds with itself. Without explanation, the report oddly highlights that Portland and Seattle are 176 miles apart, implying that the distance is somehow a factor in how the device operates. At no point in the original report is the device correctly identified as an Amazon Echo, and does not indicate what model, or how many devices were used by the subject of the story. (Danielle held up four Echo Dot units in a video interview with KIRO.)

The nature of the Echo Dot itself also adds to the complications. This model is capable of outputting sound to an external speaker through a 3.5mm audio cable. If a speaker was attached to the Echo Dot, but turned off, it would have been impossible for the owners to hear the audio prompt. The original report makes no mention of this possibility.

To be certain, Amazon does have an Alexa problem. New York Times tech columnist Farhad Manjoo wrote in February about an incident in which his Echo Dot wailed "like a child screaming in a horror-movie dream." Amazon also made changes to how Alexa operates in March after a spate of reports indicating that Alexa-powered devices were randomly laughing, seemingly unprompted. That said, experiencing one aberration should not prompt users to dispense with an entire product ecosystem. Of note, Stone Temple's recent research report indicates that smart assistants are becoming better at what they do.

While the details of the KIRO report aren't conclusive as to who is at fault, the fact remains that Amazon Alexa is always listening. This doesn't mean that users should rush to get rid of their Echo devices, but professionals may want to exercise additional caution when discussing sensitive business matters around the device.

The big takeaways for tech leaders:
  • A couple in Portland claim that their Amazon Echo smart speaker recorded a conversation and transmitted the conversation to someone in their contact list.
  • Amazon confirmed that the Echo did send the conversation, though the company insists that Alexa provided audible feedback, which the subject of the report denies occured.

Also see

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Image: CNET

About James Sanders

James Sanders is a Tokyo-based programmer and technology journalist. Since 2013, he has been a regular contributor to TechRepublic and Tech Pro Research.

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