You know, I've always thought there was something kind of creepy about the voice-activated Amazon Echo (a.k.a. Alexa), the smart speaker device that sits on a shelf in my office. Every once in a while, when I'm talking on the phone, the little blue ring will light up to let me know Alexa is listening in. Yesterday, my suspicions were confirmed when Amazon revealed a customer's Echo had not just secretly recorded a conversation with his wife, but it then sent the recording to one of his employees.
According to news reports, the Amazon customer -- who had multiple Echo speakers around his Portland, Oregon, home -- received a phone call from his employee, warning, "Unplug your Alexa devices right now. You're being hacked." The reason for the call? The employee had been sent a recording of a private conversation between the husband and wife (whose name is Danielle).
In an explanation to technology news site Recode, Amazon said the glitch was the result of a rare sequence of events:
"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."
Regardless of how rare this kind of thing might be, it's a clear warning the privacy you think you enjoy inside your home may not be quite as private as you think. While I doubt Amazon has much reason to eavesdrop on your conversations, that doesn't mean that someday hackers won't figure out how to tap into smart speakers such as Amazon Echo, Google Home, and the new Apple HomePod. And they might just have every reason in the world to listen in on your conversations and gather information about you and your family.
All this has privacy experts worried. Says Daniel Kahn Gillmor of the American Civil Liberties Union:
"We've invited these systems into our lives in ways that we are only beginning to see the negative consequences for. There are situations where we don't need to have these things. A lot of people got the Echo because they feel like it's this magic thing. Maybe the magic isn't worth it."
Fortunately for the Portland couple whose conversation was sent to the employee, it wasn't all that juicy. They were apparently talking about the hardwood floors in their home. As Danielle points out, however, they were lucky this time: "A husband and wife in the privacy of their home have conversations that they're not expecting to be sent to someone (in) their address book."
So while I won't be unplugging my Amazon Echo anytime soon, when I see it light up, I'll be a little more careful about what I'm saying.