Yes, Alexa is spying on you, even if unintentionally

Continuing with our ongoing investigation into What The Heck Are These Newfangled Machines Up To, an interesting story popped up last week involving the Amazon digital assistant known as Alexa. One family in Oregon ran into an unexpected and potentially embarrassing situation after discovering that Alexa was far more interested in what they were talking about than they’d originally imagined. Even more alarming was the fact that she was pretty proactive about it too. I doubt I’m the only one who has noticed that our smart devices wind up “listening” to us more often than advertised and that was the case with this couple. What really takes the story to the next level is the fact that Alexa was not only listening but recording the conversation. And then she mailed it to one of their contacts in Seattle. This is straight out of a SKYNET story. (Associated Press)

An “unlikely” string of events prompted Amazon’s Echo personal assistant device to record a Portland, Oregon, family’s private conversation and then send the recording to an acquaintance in Seattle, the company said Thursday.

The woman told KIRO-TV that two weeks ago an employee of her husband contacted them to say he thought their device had been hacked. He told them he had received an audio file of them discussing hardwood floors, she said.

In a statement Thursday, Amazon confirmed the woman’s private conversation had been inadvertently recorded and sent.

Of course, Amazon is blaming it on an “unlikely series of events.” Supposedly, the couple was having a discussion about some mundane, household topic and Alexa thought she heard them say her name, prompting the device to wake up and start listening. (And apparently recording.) Alexa then made another mistake, thinking that one of the homeowners had said something sounding like “send message.” The company claims that Alexa then said aloud, “To whom?” Not hearing her, the couple then supposedly said something which sounded to Alexa like a name on their contact list.

Continuing this Lemony Snicket series of unfortunate events, Alexa then supposedly repeated the contact’s name and asked if that was “right.” As you’ve no doubt guessed by now, she then interpreted something in the couple’s conversation which she took as a confirmation and off the message went.

First of all, let’s be clear about one thing. Alexa, Siri and Cortana are always listening. If they weren’t, how would they know when you said their name to wake them up? Even assuming the most benign of intentions on the part of Amazon, Apple and Google, just how sloppy would those algorithms have to be in order for that many things to go wrong in a row? In particular, before sending a message out to one of your contacts, shouldn’t the device be particularly careful that you have confirmed your intention? Just the word “right” or “yes” in the middle of a longer conversation shouldn’t be enough.

I may have mentioned here before how my wife and I were out back talking to our neighbors earlier this year when I happened to ask what the weather was supposed to be like later on. Cortana popped into the conversation out of nowhere and gave the local weather forecast for the evening. My phone was in my shirt pocket, so I suppose I can see how I might have triggerd it with pressure on the screen, but I never said “Cortana” nor did I hear the usual beep indicating that she’d woken up.

My situation was relatively harmless and only required one “accident” to trigger it, but what happened to that couple in Oregon is completely over the top. If the algorithm is really that bad and is constantly being triggered, they need to pull it back and rework it. In the meantime, if you’re wondering how many of your conversations Alexa has recorded without you knowing it, you can find out how to do that here.