About that Time Alexa Recorded a Background Conversation and Sent it to a Friend

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Alexa’s been getting a bit presumptuous*, it seems, having recorded a conversation taking place in the background, bundling it up nicely, and packing it off to a friend of her owner. It’s the kind of story that may not see likely, but Amazon has acknowledged it and offered both an explanation and a promise to make it less likely** to happen again.

Wait, She’s Listening?

The story came courtesy of Seattle TV station Kiro 7, who reported that a conversation about hardwood floors was recorded and sent to someone in their address book.

“My husband and I would joke and say I’d bet these devices are listening to what we’re saying,” said the woman, named Danielle, who apparently didn’t understand that buying a corporate wiretap would involve that device doing what it says it’s going to do.

But it’s cool, bro, because Amazon figured it out, telling Re/code:

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.”

That’s totally lolfunny, right***? And while I believe that story (Amazon has the logs to pore over), both it happening and the company’s fervent commitment to maybe making it happen less often does not make me a bigger fan of surveillance capitalism****.

*Well not exactly presumptuous, because that would require some smarts.

**That’s less likely, not unlikely or, shall we say, “won’t happen.” Bless their hearts for the honesty.

***No, it’s not.

****You get what you pay for.

4 thoughts on “About that Time Alexa Recorded a Background Conversation and Sent it to a Friend

  • If we need an Internet bill of rights, we need to consider a technology bill of rights at the start of the 21st century or at least “Features we’d like Apple, Amazon, etc. to add in ….” We are responsible for shaping our future. AR, VR, Autonomous cars, etc. Remember when there were no traffic lights or seatbelts? This article doesn’t forward a future of responsible technology, it reminds me of a George Carlin skit about God. “The kid got run over by a car, it must be God’s will.” “We gotta catch this God f—–r, that’s the fifth kid he’s killed this week.”

  • Bryan:

    C’mon, bro! This is totally gut-busting hilarious! A good time is always had anytime an errant email is sent to a random person in your database, more so if it’s an actual transcript of a personal discussion between husband and wife. It makes one wonder if the Echo Dot Kids Edition can provide equally amusing hijinks, eh? Oh, the possibilities!

    Indeed, while this little cluster flop could theoretically happen with any of the current products from Amazon, Google, Apple or MS, what makes the former two companies’ breaches more egregious is that their products are not AI ensconced in hardware, but listening devices connected to central servers outside the home that apply machine learning to respond to the user. Both the listening device and the contents on the servers are available to anyone with chops to hack-cess them.

    Perhaps, particularly for a home-based device that is always listening, an option to double-confirm before transmitting a message might be in order.

    For now, this leaves any potential user with little more than the reductionist Dirty Harry risk calculus, ‘Do I fell lucky’.

  • THIS. This is why I won’t have one of these surveillance devices in my house. Don’t care if it’s Alexa, or Google, or even Siri. If I want something to respond to a voice command I will pick up the device and turn it on. I do not want something listening and analyzing every word. Particularly from Amazon or Google where they make money by having data on me.

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