When Amazon added the ability to send text messages from Echo speakers and other Alexa devices, it came with a major and fairly obvious flaw: Instead of reading back the message for confirmation, Alexa just sends it off straight away. To make matters worse, Amazon also attaches a link to the recorded audio, so the recipient can listen to the whole thing.
That approach seems to have gotten Amazon in trouble. A family in Portland claims that Alexa recorded a private conversation in their home and sent it to a random contact without permission, Fox affiliate KIRO 7 reports. “I felt invaded,” one of the family members said. “A total privacy invasion. Immediately I said, ‘I’m never plugging that device in again, because I can’t trust it.'”
Amazon told KIRO 7 that the incident was “an extremely rare occurrence” that it’s “taking steps to avoid,” and has not given specifics on what went wrong. Still, the “Alexa” wake word has been prone to false positives (see: the creepy laughter incident), and it’s not hard to imagine Alexa misinterpreting conversation as a text message request. This could all be avoided by requiring some extra confirmation. Maybe now, Amazon will do so.
Update: Here is Amazon’s explanation of what happened:
“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 customers 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.”
As we suspected, Alexa misinterpreted background conversation as a request to send a message. And while Alexa asked to confirm the contact name, it did not read back the transcription and provide a chance to stop sending it. Perhaps that’s one of the options Amazon will evaluate now.