Amazon says it is taking steps to make sure that its Alexa-powered Echo home speaker devices do not secretly record the conversations of users after an unusual situation involving a Portland family in which discussions were recorded without their knowledge, and then sent to a contact in Seattle.
According to a report by KIRO 7, the Portland family received a phone call from their Seattle contact two weeks ago telling them that their conversations were being recorded and sent to him, and that they should unplug their Echo devices immediately.
“I felt invaded,” said Danielle, the Portland woman who was identified only by her first name in the KIRO 7 report. “A total privacy invasion. Immediately I said, ‘I’m never plugging that device in again, because I can’t trust it.'”
In a statement provided to GeekWire explaining the situation, Amazon wrote:
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.
According to KIRO 7, Danielle — who had been talking with her husband about hardwood floors on the secretly recorded conversation — said she is hoping to receive a refund on her Alexa-powered devices.
Privacy concerns have long worried many of those who use Internet-connected home speakers. In a Bloomberg story late last year titled “Is Alexa really eavesdropping on you?”, reporter Brad Stone wrote about some of the fears, but concluded that many of them were overblown.
Even so, The American Civil Liberties Union wrote last year that privacy issues tied to home speakers should be discussed. “… if microphones are going to be part of our daily lives in our intimate spaces, we need broader awareness of the issues they raise, and to settle on strong protections and best practices as soon as possible,” wrote Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the ACLU.