As it turns out, the scandal over Amazon’s Alexa voice-controlled personal assistant recording and sharing private conversations both with hackers and with people on the users’ contact list is much more serious than the company had feared.
As Bloomberg reported, Amazon responded to a KIRO 7 news report about a couple who received a call from a friend saying “unplug your Alexa devices right now. You’re being hacked” after the company’s device had shared a private conversation without explicit permission.
Amazon offered a complex, meandering “explanation” for the series of strange coincidences that triggered Alexa to record and share a couple’s private conversation. It started with Alexa being triggered when it heard a word that sounded like “Alexa” – the command for the technology activate. Here are the details:
Amazon explained the series of events that triggered the episode in an emailed statement. The Echo woke after hearing a word in the couple’s conversation that sounded like “Alexa” — the usual trigger to begin recording. The speaker later heard “send message” during the conversation, at which point the device asked, “to whom?” The pair continued talking in the background and the Echo’s system interpreted part of the chat to identify a name in the couple’s contact list. Alexa then asked aloud if they wanted to send a message to that contact and heard “right” in more background conversation.
“As unlikely as this string of events is, we are evaluating options to make this case even less likely,” the company said.
The report invigorated privacy concerns as internet-connected devices like the Amazon Echo become ubiquitous in homes. Amazon in 2014 introduced the new line of devices, which can also stream music and order goods from Amazon via voice command. It has been busy introducing updated versions and adding features to sell more devices than rivals like Alphabet Inc. and Apple Inc., which offer their own versions.
The “explanation” suggests that consumers should be extremely careful of what they say around their personal assistants to the point where more users should consider deactivating the device when it’s not in use. And there’s plenty: more than 60 million U.S. consumers will use a smart speaker at least once a month this year, with more than 40 million of them using Amazon’s devices, according to eMarketer Inc.
Ryan Calo, an associate law professor at the University of Washington who studies the intersection of law and technology, said this incident could cause lasting damage not only to the Alexa, and thus Amazon, brand but to voice-controlled personal assistants in general (Alphabet and Apple make their own model).
People have been willing to overlook glitches in the Echo, like it turning on accidentally or without the wake word being uttered, said Ryan Calo, an associate law professor at the University of Washington who researches how law applies to technology. This incident is more alarming since a private conversation was recorded and sent to a third party, he said.
“Think about how uncomfortable the millions of people who own these things now feel,” Calo said. “The real harm is the invasion into solitude people now experience in their homes.”
Not to mention the damage it could do to technology more broadly, as paranoia surrounding privacy continues to intensify, according to Daniel Kahn Gillmor, the in-house technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union.