A Portland, Oregon woman named Danielle said she feels like Amazon Echo invaded her family's privacy after the voice-controlled device sent audio recordings of her private conversation to one of her husband's employees, who was in the family's address book. The recipient of the recordings called her family and warned them, "unplug your Alexa devices right now," she told Seattle-based news station KIRO 7. "You're being hacked."
According to Amazon, however, Danielle, who has an Echo device in every room of her home, was not hacked — one of her Echo devices simply misinterpreted the family's conversation for a "wake word" and voice commands. The Amazon Echo has a microphone that's constantly listening for a wake word, which users can set as "Alexa," "Echo," or "Computer." When the Echo hears the wake word, a blue ring light will appear.
In an emailed statement, an Amazon spokesperson explained, “Echo woke up due to a word in background conversation sounding like 'Alexa,' and the next conversation was heard as 'send message.' Then, when Alexa said out loud, 'To whom?,' the device interpreted the background conversation as a name in the customer's contact list. Alexa then responded, '[Contact name], right?;' Alexa again interpreted the background conversation as, 'Right.'"
"As unlikely as this string of events is, we are evaluating options to make this case even less likely,” the spokesperson said.
The family's private conversation had activated the smart speaker's Alexa Calling and Messaging feature, launched in July 2017. After enabling the feature, users can say, "Alexa, call John" or "Alexa, send a message to John." The latter is what Amazon said the Portland family's Echo did. Alexa Messaging works like Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp, and messages appear in the Alexa app. When someone sends a message to you from an Echo, it shows up as a voice message in the Alexa app.
To use the feature, customers must import their entire address book, which an Amazon spokesperson says is stored "securely in the Amazon cloud." That's how Danielle was able to message someone seemingly random — one of her husband's employees in Seattle — from her Echo device.
While customers can block contacts from calling and messaging, or turn off calling by saying "Don't disturb me," this case illustrates how it's possible for Alexa to mistakenly record and share a private conversation with an unintended recipient.
In a statement to KIRO 7, an Amazon spokesperson wrote, "Amazon takes privacy very seriously. We investigated what happened and determined this was an extremely rare occurrence. We are taking steps to avoid this from happening in the future."
KIRO 7 reported that Amazon offered to "de-provision" Danielle's calling and messaging feature, so she could continue using the device as a smart-home hub. She said all of her home's Echo devices are unplugged, and is seeking a refund from Amazon.
It's not the first time Alexa has spooked Echo users. In March, owners of devices reported that the speaker would spontaneously start laughing. "We are changing that phrase to be, 'Alexa, can you laugh?' which is less likely to have false positives, and we are disabling the short utterance, 'Alexa, laugh.' We are also changing Alexa’s response from simply laughter to, 'Sure, I can laugh,' followed by laughter," the company responded.