According to an original report by KIRO-TV, the Portland got a call two weeks ago from a family friend. The friend told them to immediately unplug all of their electronic devices.
When they asked their friend why, the friend told them he had heard their conversation in his home. The friend, who lives in Seattle, Washington, (more than 170 miles away from Portland) then proceeded to give the couple details of the conversation he had overheard.
“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,” the company told KIRO-TV.
The woman, named Danielle, told KIRO-TV that she felt the incident was a “total privacy invasion. Immediately I said, ‘I’m never plugging that device in again, because I can’t trust it.”
And yet the concept of having a microphone in your home that’s always on and listening to your every word doesn’t seem like an invasion of privacy? It’s only a privacy invasion when the microphone does its job without you telling it to. That makes sense.
In any case, it’s not clear whether this incident is representative of a widespread issue or not. Amazon has recently added voice-messaging features to its Alexa assistant. That update made it possible to send recordings to other users. Most likely, the couple activated this new feature without realizing it.
And if Alexa is recording your voice to send to your friends, it’s almost certainly recording your voice to send to the government too.
The couple affected by this issue said that, after the incident, they unplugged every Alexa device in their house. They said that they had Alexa-powered devices placed throughout their home, controlling everything from their security system to the lights.
What a brave new world we live in. Science fiction is quickly becoming science fact. Only, at this point in time, the house that can talk back to you can also record your private conversations for the government’s domestic surveillance purposes! One moment you’re saying “Alexa, bedroom lights off!” and the next you’re saying “Alexa, call the nearest civil rights lawyer!”
The woman, Danielle, also claimed that the device never advised her that it was sending out a recording of their conversation. It’s possible that this is a case of user error, that the device did advise her and she simply didn’t hear it, but a bug in the Alexa software is also a real possibility. Either way, it’s disturbing.
After she took the issue to Amazon’s tech support division, an Amazon engineer gave her an apology. Amazon’s technicians also offered to “de-provision” the Alexa speakers. Essentially, that means cutting the device’s functionality so it has just the “smart home” features. But Danielle claims that Amazon refused her request to refund her purchase of the Alexa devices.
Which makes sense. Once they have you, why would they want to let you go?