A Portland couple were horrified when they discovered their Amazon Echo device had recorded a conversation between the two of them and sent the conversation to another person without their permission. The recipient, an employee of the husband, was in the couple's contact list.
Amazon Echo devices are smart speakers developed by Amazon, known for the voice-controlled assistant "Alexa." The Echo was first distributed in June 2015, and is capable of voice interaction, creating to-do lists, streaming podcasts and music, providing weather and traffic information, and can control other smart devices in the home. The device is programmed to respond to the name "Alexa," but this "wake word" can be changed by the user.
The couple have multiple Echo devices in various rooms of their home. The husband's employee, who lives in Seattle, called the couple and told them to unplug the device immediately. He informed them that he had received audio files of a conversation they had about hardwood floors. The couple listened to the sound file and realized they had been recorded without their knowledge. Both felt the recording was an invasion of their privacy.
In response, Amazon explained what they believe happened. According to the online retail giant, Echo heard a word in the background conversation that it believed to be "Alexa." The subsequent conversation between the couple was heard as a request to send a message, at which point Amazon believes Alexa said out loud, "To whom?" The background conversation was interpreted as the employee's name in the couple's contact list, and then the device sent the message.
Last year, a man in North Carolina reported a similar incident when his Amazon Echo recorded a short conversation and sent it to his insurance agent without his knowledge. Echo owners are becoming increasingly worried over privacy concerns. According to research, more than 60 million consumers will use a smart speaker at least once a month this year with over 40 million of those individuals using an Amazon device.
Most are unconcerned with issues like an Echo turning on accidentally or without the "wake word" being said. The real concern is with a private conversation being recorded and sent to a third party.
Echo devices keep all recorded conversations, which are available to users through the Alexa app. Amazon claims to keep the voice recordings to learn users' voices to improve the accuracy of the service. The recordings can be deleted by the user and security settings can be changed to recordings from being sent to anyone else.