Portland couple pulling the plug
It’s time to break out your “I Told You So” banners, Reg readers, because a Portland, Oregon couple received a phone call from one of the husband’s employees earlier this month who told them she’d just received a recording of them talking in their home.
“Unplug your Alexa devices right now,” the employee told the couple who don’t want to be named, “you’re being hacked.”
At first the couple thought it might be a hoax call before the employee – over a hundred miles away in Seattle – revealed that they had just been talking about their hardwood floors.
The recording had been sent to the employee’s phone (who is in the husband’s contacts list) and they forwarded it to the wife, Danielle, who was amazed to hear herself talking about their floors. “I felt invaded,” she told local news station KIRO-TV . “A total privacy invasion. Immediately I said, ‘I’m never plugging that device in again, because I can’t trust it.'”
The couple then went around their home unplugging all the Amazon devices – they had them all over the home and used them to control various smart home devices, including a thermostat and security system – and then called Amazon to complain.
According to Danielle, Amazon confirmed that it was the voice-activated digital assistant that had recorded and sent the file and apologized profusely, but gave no explanation for how it might have happened.
“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!”
She said she’d asked for a refund for all their Alexa devices – something the company has so far demurred from agreeing to.
We have asked Amazon for a comment and explanation. So far it is only offering a vague statement about taking privacy very seriously.
For this to happen, something has gone very seriously wrong with the Alexa device’s programming.
The machines are designed to constantly listen out for the “Alexa” wake word and maintain a constant one-second buffer to improve response times. It then records what is said until there is a gap in the conversation and sends it to Amazon’s cloud system to transcribe, figure out and respond to.
The system is remarkably effective which has led to it becoming extremely successful as a consumer product and sparked competing products from Google and Apple.
Amazon has since been doing everything it can to use Alexa as a foundational technology, opening it up to other apps, tying in smart-home products so voice commands can be used to make changes inside a house and, more recently, allowing it to access contact lists and make phonecalls.
Which all sounds terrific until it goes wrong and your device acts like a bug, recording what you say in the privacy of your own home and sending a recording to a seemingly random contact.
The truth is that in its determined effort to expand Alexa’s usefulness and so consolidate its lead in the market, Amazon has been moving too fast. All too often in recent months the devices have been wrongly hearing its wake word – something that users tend to discover only when the device provides an unexpected response to a question it wasn’t asked.
The voice recognition and AI system behind Alexa is also far from perfect, leading to misunderstandings. So long as those misunderstandings and unexpected responses are not too frequent though, users put up with it because of the usefulness of the product overall.
The problem with constantly increasingly what the device can do however is that a misunderstanding can have a far greater impact than provided a nonsensical response. The device is now expecting to hear commands that allow it to interact with other features and it appears as though there it has turned the dial too far in acting on them rather than indicating it didn’t understand the command.
Presumably in this case, the system not only heard its wake word incorrectly but then also misinterpreted the conversation as asking it to call the person in the contacts list. Which it then did and then at some point decided that was the end of the conversation and shut down.
Whether the device announced what it was doing – which it is designed to do – and wasn’t heard, or failed to announce it will be something important to know. Although for the end user it’s a distinction that may not actually matter.
Clearly there is going to be some serious fallout from the situation since everyone’s fear about such a system has just been realized.
Amazon will be hotly debating how to respond and how much information to provide over what went wrong. We have no doubt that the company will inform us in a few days that it has discovered the issue and fixed it so it will never happen again. And we expect to see some plausible reason why this was a one-off.
But the truth is that if Alexa devices can easily be turned into bugs if there is a hardware or software mistake and we are willing to bet that in its haste to constantly update its devices Amazon let a big mistake through.
And now, dear readers, enjoy yourselves in the comments section. ®
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Portland couple pulling the plug