Amazon Alexa made headlines today for appearing to violate a user's privacy by recording her conversation without consent.
Worse yet, Amazon's assistant then sent the conversation to the user's contact - again, without consent. While that sounds absolutely awful, the actual story behind what happened isn't as much nefarious as it is unlikely. Here's what happened: A Portland woman identified as "Danielle" told local TV station Kiro 7 that an Amazon Echo device recorded a private conversation between her and her husband.
The Echo then sent the recording to an employee of the husband. Then, about two weeks ago, the employee sent Danielle the audio files of their chats that he'd received from their smart speaker. Danielle's family had a household full of Alexa-equipped devices, but when this incident happened, they immediately unplugged them all and contacted Amazon. This is what Amazon later told Danielle:
"They said, 'Our engineers went through your logs, and they saw exactly what you told us; they saw exactly what you said happened, and we're sorry.' He apologized like 15 times in a matter of 30 minutes, and he said, 'We really appreciate you bringing this to our attention, this is something we need to fix!'" Danielle told KIRO 7.
Now, since this story has gone viral, an Amazon spokesperson has been forced to confirm that the incident took place, and it released an explanation of what happened. Oddly, it appears as though Alexa understood Danielle's conversation as commands and wasn't spying.
Here's what happened, 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'. As unlikely as this string of events is, we are evaluating options to make this case even less likely.”
Talk about unlikely! But if you think about it, Alexa has probably heard you speaking before and been triggered awake by your conversation. Amazon clearly needs to work on this somehow if it wants to avoid further scandals and get ahead of any privacy concerns.