Last week Amazon got hit by one of the worst privacy violation scandals to affect it in its 23-year history.
The scandal concerned a report out of Oregon about a Portland woman whose private conversations with her husband were recorded and then shared by Alexa, the virtual assistant housed within Amazon’s Echo smart speakers.
Speaking with local media late last week, Danielle explained that about two weeks ago she and her husband received a call from one of her husband’s employees telling them to immediately unplug their Alexa device.
When they asked the employee why, he claimed that he had received audio files of recordings from inside their home via their Echo unit.
“At first, my husband was, like, ‘No, you didn’t!'” Danielle said. “And the (recipient of the message) said, ‘You sat there talking about hardwood floors.’ And we said, ‘Oh gosh, you really did hear us.'”
He sure did.
Here’s how the Echo works: It contains a virtual assistant, Alexa, that’s capable of performing tasks for the device’s owners. It can record conversations, initiate certain types of calls, play music, purchase products, share the news and much more.
The beauty — and curse (to be explained shortly) — of this device is that it’s designed to be operated with voice commands. You simply tell Alexa what you want: “Alexa, tell me today’s weather forecast.” To turn it on, you likewise simply say, “Alexa.”
It’s also a curse because Alexa sometimes misinterprets people’s voice commands, which is exactly what happened in Danielle’s case.
In a statement to The Verge, an Amazon spokesperson confirmed that Danielle’s “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’.”
And just like that Danielle’s conversations with her husband were transmitted to a man who reportedly lives 176 miles away from them.
“I felt invaded,” she complained to local media. “A total privacy invasion. Immediately I said, ‘I’m never plugging that device in again, because I can’t trust it.'”
She’s not the only one who feels this way:
I will NEVER use Alexa etc b/c these r just a gateway for anyone to b easily spied upon. We have one and it has been unplugged and will never b plugged in again.
— DS -#Resist #Medicare4All (@mastifmom) May 26, 2018
— Sarah Russo of Russo & Prince (@Solano_Law) May 25, 2018
The big tech companies who have this capability and market it to consumers are spying. That should be illegal. Wrong! You can't trust. You can't even watch TV in peace anymore. #Integrity #Politics #Amazon #Privacy
— Karyn Haley (@pluviaaequitas) May 26, 2018
Amazon reportedly offered to disable the communication functions of Danielle’s Echo device so she could continue using its other features, but she refused. Instead she hopes to receive a refund, though Amazon has reportedly been hesitant about providing her with one.
Apparently, neither quality customer service nor respect for privacy are things that concern Amazon. That’s good to know …
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