Alexa! That’s the keyword that will start a conversation with the intelligent personal assistant Alexa everywhere. While most users find it awesome and love it, data protection specialists feel a bit different. Why? Well, the smart Amazon box doesn’t take privacy too seriously.
Alexa is the name if the voice-controlled intelligent personal assistant service that’s integrated into Amazon’s Echo smart speakers. That means you could say something like “Alexa, set the alarm for 6 am” and the device will react and comply. For that to work the assistant needs to constantly be in standby mode – after all, it has to wake up once you say one of its wake words “Alexa”, “Computer”, “Echo”, or “Amazon”. Here lies also the source of the problem: A device with a microphone that’s constantly on stand-by and that belongs to a huge company? The potential issues should be glaringly obvious.
When everything goes awry
And that’s why what happened in the US is a cautionary tale that can only be described as everyone’s horror scenario: Danielle, one of the owners of an Echo, was talking with her husband about wooden floors when she – all of a sudden – received an alarming call from one of her husband’s co-workers. He apparently had received a message with their conversation out of nowhere and thought the couple got hacked.
The Amazon customer support confirmed that the conversation had indeed been recorded and sent to the colleague but at first wasn’t able to say why. They were only able to find an explanation after some in-depth research – and it is as strange as it is shocking. According to Amazon “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”.”
A very unlikely string of events
Is it likely that something similar happens more often? That’s hard to say since not everyone would go public with it. Amazon at least apologized a lot and stated that they would do everything to make sure something like that would not happen again: “As unlikely as this string of events is, we are evaluating options to make this case even less likely.”
For Danielle and her husband though it does not matter anymore. They removed all Echos from their home: Their trust in the smart device and the company behind it are gone forever.