Amazon Echo and electronic snooping

A Portland couple were discussing hardwood floors. Their Amazon Echo was listening, recording their discussion, then sending the recording randomly to someone in their contacts list, without the couple’s knowledge.

The wife told Seattle TV station KIRO 7 that they learned something was amiss when they received a phone call from an employee of the husband who lived in Seattle, telling them that he had inadvertently received a recording of their conversation, and telling them to unplug their Alexa devices right away. Which they promptly did, including the devices that controlled their home’s temperature, lights and security.

The couple had essentially been bugged. “I felt invaded,” Danielle told KIRO. “A total privacy invasion. Immediately, I said, ‘I’m never plugging that device in again. I can’t trust it.”

How did this happen? Here is Amazon’s explanation of the episode:

“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.”

So Alexa heard the background conversation and misconstrued it as a series of specific directives five times in a row. And it all happened without the people in the room knowing that the device was listening, much less recording their conversation and shipping it out, supposedly on their behalf.

Why was the Echo recording the conversation in the first place? Amazon’s Echo uses seven microphones and noise-canceling technology to listen out for its wake word. It records about a second of ambient sound on the device, which it constantly discards and replaces. But once it thinks it hears its wake word, the Echo’s blue light ring activates and it begins sending a recording of what it hears to Amazon’s computers.

There was the time an Echo ordered a $170 dollhouse for a 6-year-old who asked Alexa for one. And the time Burger King ran a TV ad that asked , “OK Google, what is the Whopper burger?” — causing all installed Google Home devices to burst forth with info from the Whopper Wikipedia page.

While “home assistants” such as the Amazon Echo, Google Home and Apple HomePod have been big sellers in the past few years, they’ve brought with them a litany of privacy and practical concerns. As Daniel Kahn Gillmor, a staff technologist for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, commented to the Washington Post, “These are potential surveillance devices, and we have invited them further and further into our lives without examining how that could go wrong. We are starting to see examples of that.”

If you have one of ghese gadgets go into the Alexa app, tap Settings —> History, and then listen to the recordings Alexa has made of you and your family. (While you’re there, you can also delete them).” (based on an article on NPR, May 26, 2018)

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