Amazon Echo Sent Private Chats to Random People Discreetly

The smart speaker from Amazon powered by Alexa voice assistant has been found violating user privacy. 

Tech News
2 min read
Amazon Echo Dot works in tandem with Alexa, the voice assistant. 

A private conversation between a couple in the US was recorded by Alexa and then sent to a random person in their contact list.

Amazon on Thursday described an "unlikely... string of events" that made Alexa send an audio recording of the family to one of their contacts randomly. The episode underscored how Alexa can misinterpret conversation as a wake-up call and command.

Amazon’s defence of this incident is rather perplexing. The Jeff Bezos-owned giant simply highlighted the process in which Alexa functions across devices.

“Alexa, which comes with Echo speakers and other gadgets, starts recording after it hears its name or another "wake word" selected by users. This means that an utterance quite like Alexa, even from a TV commercial, can activate a device. That's what happened in the incident,” Amazon said.

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?’ when the background conversation was interpreted as a name in the customer’s contact list. Alexa then asked out loud, ‘(contact name), right?’ and interpreted background conversation as ‘right’.
Amazon’s statement on the incident
Smart speakers are cool but make sure they are publicly connected. 
Smart speakers are cool but make sure they are publicly connected. 
(Photo: The Quint/Canva)

Amazon has repeatedly claimed that its voice assistant service, Alexa whose data is recorded on the cloud, is safe and doesn’t violate privacy issues.

Incidents like this clearly highlight the implications of owning such devices, especially the ones like Google Home that doesn’t even have a microphone that can be stopped from hearing conversations.

Google Home doesn’t let you switch off the microphone. 
Google Home doesn’t let you switch off the microphone. 
(Photo: The Quint)

University researchers from Berkeley and Georgetown found in a 2016 paper that sounds which are unintelligible to humans can set off voice assistants in general, raised concerns of exploitation by attackers.

At that time, Amazon did not comment on the matter, but it previously told The New York Times that it has taken steps to keep its devices secure.

Amazon and Google (biggest hoarders of user data) top the smart speaker market with majority of their devices selling in countries like the US and parts of Europe. Their next-big target is India, where data privacy regulations are yet to be enforced.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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