The new Amazon.com Inc. Echo devices sit on display in front of the Seattle Space Needle during the company’s product reveal launch event in downtown Seattle, Washington. (Photographer: Daniel Berman/Bloomberg)

Amazon Explains Why Alexa Recorded, Shared Couple's Conversation

(Bloomberg) -- Amazon.com Inc. said a series of miscues picked up by one of its voice-activated Echo speakers during an Oregon couple’s private conversation resulted in the chat being recorded and sent to one of their acquaintances without their knowledge.

The tech company responded Wednesday to a KIRO 7 news report that the pair got a phone call recently from the acquaintance, one of the husband’s employees, saying "unplug your Alexa devices right now. You’re being hacked." The Portland couple used Amazon’s voice-activated devices throughout their home to control heat, lights and security, according to the news report.

Amazon explained the series of events that triggered the episode in an emailed statement. The Echo woke after hearing a word in the couple’s conversation that sounded like "Alexa" -- the usual trigger to begin recording. The speaker later heard "send message" during the conversation, at which point the device asked, "to whom?" The pair continued talking in the background and the Echo’s system interpreted part of the chat to identify a name in the couple’s contact list. Alexa then asked aloud if they wanted to send a message to that contact and heard "right" in more background conversation.

"As unlikely as this string of events is, we are evaluating options to make this case even less likely,” the company said.

The report invigorated privacy concerns as internet-connected devices like the Amazon Echo become ubiquitous in homes. Amazon in 2014 introduced the new line of devices, which can also stream music and order goods from Amazon via voice command. It has been busy introducing updated versions and adding features to sell more devices than rivals like Alphabet Inc. and Apple Inc., which offer their own versions.

Voice-activated assistants like the Echo and Google Home have gone mainstream. More than 60 million U.S. consumers will use a smart speaker at least once a month this year, with more than 40 million of them using Amazon’s devices, according to eMarketer Inc.

People have been willing to overlook glitches in the Echo, like it turning on accidentally or without the wake word being uttered, said Ryan Calo, an associate law professor at the University of Washington who researches how law applies to technology. This incident is more alarming since a private conversation was recorded and sent to a third party, he said.

"Think about how uncomfortable the millions of people who own these things now feel," Calo said. "The real harm is the invasion into solitude people now experience in their homes."

The incident highlights the risk that inadvertent software bugs or intentional hacks can invade privacy as devices with sensors become more commonplace, said Daniel Kahn Gillmor, a technologist with the American Civil Liberties Union. Some manufacturers are responding to heightened consumer sensitivities about privacy by building devices that have physical switches to turn off sensors such as cameras and microphones, he said.

"We’ve invited these systems into our lives in ways that we are only beginning to see the negative consequences for," Gillmor said. "There are situations where we don’t need to have these things. A lot of people got the Echo because they feel like it’s this magic thing. Maybe the magic isn’t worth it."

For more on Alexa, check out the Decrypted  podcast:

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