If you think technology is listening to your conversation, you could be on to something.
A woman in Portland said that her family’s Amazon Echo recorded her conversations, then sent them to a random contact without any human direction.
“I felt invaded,” Danielle, who didn’t want to use her last name, told local news station KIRO7. “A total privacy invasion. Immediately I said, ‘I’m never plugging that device in again, because I can’t trust it.’”
She said she only found out about the recording when she got a phone call from the person who received the recordings, an employee of her husband’s.
“The person on the other line said, ‘Unplug your Alexa devices right now, you’re being hacked,'” she said. (Alexa is the name for the artificial intelligence program on Amazon devices like the Echo.)
The employee – who was in Seattle, 283 kilometres away from Portland – repeated back parts of the conversation to her.
“A husband and wife in the privacy of their home have conversations that they’re not expecting to be sent to someone their address book,” she said.
After unplugging the devices, which were throughout every room in her home and designed to control lights and heating, Danielle called the company to find out what happened.
An engineer with the company apologized to Danielle. He told her the device “just guessed” what her and her husband were saying.
In a report to Engadget, Amazon officials offered a more detailed explanation.
“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, ‘, 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,” officials told the technology website.
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Danielle told KIRO7 that Alexa did not say out loud that it was sending a recording to a contact.
Amazon has offered to “de-provision” her devices from the internet, meaning they would still be able to use the Smart Home features, but it wouldn’t be able to send messages outside the home. Danielle said she would like a full refund for the devices.
“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,” the company said in a statement.
The incident isn’t the first time Alexa has been caught doing things it wasn’t told to do. In March, people said the device was caught randomly laughing for no reason.
Another incident saw Alexa order cat food after a commercial without its owner telling it to.
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