It’s no secret that people are concerned about their AI-enabled devices secretly listening to their conversations, but the story about Amazon Alexa recording a recent conversation sounds more than creepy. A report in KIRO 7 tells a story about a woman from Portland who found out that Amazon Echo had recorded a part of their family conversation that it later sent to a random person from the family contact list.
The report instantly sparkled concern and questioned whether Amazon devices could have really been listening and recording our conversations all this time, which is much more than the company has claimed. The woman, who is only identified as Danielle, told KIRO 7 that one of her husband’s coworkers called to say that he had received a message that had the Amazon Alexa recording attached, including one of their conversations about hardwood floors.
“I felt invaded,” she also told KIRO 7. “A total privacy invasion. Immediately I said, ‘I’m never plugging that device in again, because I can’t trust it.’” This situation sparkled a debate again, about whether the smart assistants like Alexa are reliable and whether the benefits of the device outweigh the risks of Amazon Alexa recording private conversations like this one.
WIRED contacted Amazon to see what’s up with Amazon Alexa recording more than it should.
“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 customer’s contact list. Alexa then asked out loud, ‘[contact name], right?’ Alexa then interpreted background conversation as ‘right.’”
Although the explanation seems plausible, a wake word, usually being ‘Alexa’ makes Amazon Echo transfer user’s words into the cloud for processing, because snippets of voice recordings that can be sent to the contacts usually belong to the standard Echo feature. The device will then double check if the person chose the correct contact and records until the user stops speaking after which it will send the file to the recipient.
Danielle also told KIRO 7 that her family uses Amazon Echo devices in “every room” of their home so that they can control heat and lights. The echo device that caught parts of their conversation could have been in the same room as them, but the devices in other rooms could also have heard the faint voices and conversation. Also, Danielle said that the device “did not audibly advise her it was preparing to send the recording,” although Amazon claims that the device provided two audio prompts, and that Danielle could have lowered the volume of Alexa’s voice or she couldn’t hear the audio prompts coming from another Echo device from a different room.
“People should be more aware of the risks involved with smart home devices, especially the ones that have always-on listening status,” Tiffany Li, a privacy attorney at Yale Law School’s Information Society Project was quoted by WIRED. “Companies should do better to inform people of their privacy rights. And we need better laws to protect people against privacy harms. But I wouldn’t say that everyone should necessarily avoid these devices. They are convenient and they can be particularly helpful for people with certain disabilities, for example.”
That being said, make sure to unplug your Echo device if you’re concerned with Amazon Alexa recording your private conversations, ensuring that it’s not listening to you. Additionally, the Amazon Echo devices in other rooms of your apartment or house.