Modern technology can be really stinkin’ scary. Amazon Alexa recorded an Oregon couple’s private conversation, then emailed the recording to a business associate.
The nightmare a family in Portland, Oregon, experienced is the exact reason why millions of Americans are still resistant to letting technology have more control over their lives. The words in the couple’s private conversation lined up just exactly right — enough to cue the Alexa feature on their Amazon Echo device to begin recording and then send that recorded conversation in an email to a business contact in Seattle.
When the person received the recording, he called the couple and told them to unplug their Alexa devices because he thought they were being hacked.
“We unplugged all of them and he proceeded to tell us that he had received audio files of recordings from inside our house,” the woman told television station KIRO7. “At first, my husband was, like, ‘No you didn’t!’ And the (person) said, ‘You sat there talking about hardwood floors.’ And we said, ‘Oh gosh, you really did hear us.'”
The family has multiple Amazon Echo devices — a voice-controlled smart speaker — throughout their home, from which they are able to control their security system, lighting, and heating.
So how did it happen?
Amazon released the following statement with their explanation of the issue:
“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.’ As unlikely as this string of events is, we are evaluating options to make this case even less likely.”
If you’ve ever used the voice-control feature on your smartphone or vehicle’s GPS system, then you know how easy it is for smart devices to misinterpret the words we say. And the speakers for Amazon Echo are created with multiple microphones so that they can receive voice commands from a distance and despite significant background noise.
But a situation like this is downright scary — that, through a series of glitches and background noise aligning just right, a private conversation between two people in a private home could be broadcast to the outside world.
Amazon promises that they are evaluating the situation and what they can do to prevent incidents like this from occurring in the future.
Even so, it’s hard for me to get on board bringing a device like this into my home. Forrester Research says that nearly half of American households will contain a smart speaker by the year 2020. That’s less than two years away.
What do you think about voice-controlled smart speakers? Is Big Brother watching us? Does it terrify you to think how much your everyday conversations are possibly being recorded by silent, sneaky devices? We’d love to hear your theories in the comments below!