Alexa creepily recorded a family's private conversations, sent them to business associate


SAN FRANCISCO – A Portland family’s private conversations were recorded by their Amazon Echo smart speaker and emailed to a random phone contact of the father, they told a local TV station. 

Amazon explained that an unforseen combination of random words in a conversation the family didn’t realize was being overheard by Alexa trigged an action no one expected, least of all Amazon, which is now working to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

The Oregon family contacted Amazon to investigate after a private conversation in their home was recorded by their Amazon Echo — the voice-controlled smart speaker — and the recorded audio was sent to the phone of someone in Seattle who was in the father’s contact list.

“My husband and I would joke and say I’d bet these devices are listening to what we’re saying,” Danielle, who did not want us to use her last name, told KIRO TV in Seattle.

The family’s house has multiple Echo devices that control heating, lights and security system.

At first they didn’t believe it when the colleague called to tell them he’d received recordings of their conversations. But when he told them they’d been talking about hardwood floors, they realized he wasn’t joking. 

“I felt invaded,” the woman told the television station. 

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How it happened

Reached by USA TODAY, Amazon offered an explanation of how the highly unlikely and yet not impossible series of events played out.

First, Amazon said, the Echo woke up when someone in the home said something that sounded to it like “Alexa.”

Next, the subsequent conversation included something that, to Alexa, sounded like a “send a message” request.

At which point, Alexa said out loud, “To whom?” 

Next, Alexa interpreted the background conversation as a name in the customers’ contact list. 

Alexa then asked, again out loud, “[Contact name], right?” 

Alexa then interpreted background conversation as confirming with, “Right.”

While such an improbable string of events doesn’t happen every day, with millions of smart speakers in American homes hearing tens of millions of conversations, it’s with the realm of probablity.

In this instance, a random series of disconnected conversations got interpreted by Alexa as a specific and connected series of commands.

It doesn’t appear that the family members actually heard Alexa asking who it should send a message to, or confirming that it should be sent.

That’s probably a function of how good the Echo’s far field voice recognition is. Each speaker has seven microphones which are arrayed so the cylindrical speaker can pick up voice commands from far away or even in noisy rooms with lots of conversations going on.

Amazon says it is evaluating options to make cases such as happened to the Portland family less likely.

But given that Forrester predicts by 2020 almost 50% of American households will contain a smart speaker, expect more such confusions in the future.

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