Alexa, Invade My Privacy

A woman and her husband recently discovered that the voice-controlled Amazon devices in her house had been secretly recording their private conversations and sharing them with a random contact 176 miles away in Seattle.

“He had received audio recordings from what was going on in our house,” the woman told the Seattle TV station KIRO. “I felt invaded – like total privacy invasion.”

The woman, who identified herself as Danielle, said she and her husband had purchased an Echo Dot speaker for every room of their house so as to control the lights, heating and security systems.

“My husband and I would joke and say, ‘I bet these devices are listening to what we’re saying,’” Danielle said.

The nightmare became a harsh reality when one of her husband’s co-workers called her from Seattle and said, “Unplug your Alexa devices right now. You’re being hacked.” Danielle said they did not believe it. So the caller gave them a snippet. “You sat there talking about hardwood floors,” he said, according to Danielle. “And we said, ‘Oh gosh, you really did hear us.’”

Immediately, the couple got rid of the devices. “We unplugged all of them and he proceeded to tell us that he had received audio files or recordings from inside our house,” said Danielle.

Her next call was to Amazon. She spoke with an engineer who confirmed what happened, said it was rare, and apologized “like 15 times in a matter of 30 minutes.” She said Amazon offered to tweak her system so she could continue using the smart-home features of the Echo Dot, but said they weren’t taking any chances and want it out of their home.

“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,” she said.

Amazon did not respond immediately to a request for comment from NBC News, but the company sent KIRO-TV the following statement: “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.”

And in a subsequent statement to the tech site Ars Technica, Amazon offered a theory for how the unintended spying occurred.

Theoretically, “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?’” Amazon said. “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,” the Amazon representative said.

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