Amazon Echo sent family's private conversation to another user
Words were misinterpreted at least twice in string of events, resulting in a 'send message' command
An "unlikely" string of events prompted Amazon's Echo personal assistant device to record a Portland, Ore., family's private conversation and then send the recording to an acquaintance in Seattle, the company said Thursday.
The woman told KIRO-TV in Seattle that two weeks ago, one of her husband's employees contacted them to say he thought their device had been hacked. He told them he had received an audio file of them discussing hardwood floors, she said.
In a statement Thursday, Amazon confirmed the woman's private conversation had been inadvertently recorded and sent. The company said the device interpreted a word in the background conversation as "Alexa" — a command that makes it wake up — and then it interpreted the conversation as a "send message" request.
"At which point, Alexa said out loud 'To whom?"' the statement said. "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."'
The statement continued: "As unlikely as this string of events is, we are evaluating options to make this case even less likely."
The woman, who was identified only by her first name in the news report, said every room in her family's home was wired with the Amazon devices to control her home's heat, lights and security system.
She said the family unplugged the devices and contacted Amazon after they learned the recording had been sent.
Ryan Calo, a law professor who co-directs the University of Washington's tech policy lab, said while there are upsides to these technologies, there are also downsides to be considered. One of those risks, he said, is normalizing a feeling that a person is never alone, even in their own home.
"When you start to introduce into people's homes something that both has a microphone and is connected to the internet, I feel that that kind of thing is inevitable."
Calo said he believes Amazon's statement that this was a low-probability event, where several different things had to happen around the same time for the message to be sent. But he still thinks we'll see more of these cases as more people choose to bring voice-activated tools into the home.
With files from CBC News