Alexa has many talents. Amazon’s voice assistant can play music, set timers, order a pizza, and send recordings of private conversations to random people in its users’ contact list.
An Amazon Echo user in Portland, Oregon, says she was shocked to learn her Echo had recorded a conversation with her husband without them knowing, then sent the audio file to one of his employees in Seattle.
“My husband and I would joke and say I’d bet these devices are listening to what we’re saying,” the Echo owner Danielle told local news station KIRO 7. The news station did not report her last name.
She said the incident happened two weeks ago when the employee called them to say she’d received a strange voice recording of them.
“The person on the other line said, ‘unplug your Alexa devices right now,'” she told KIRO. “‘You’re being hacked.'”
The audio recording included the couple talking about hardwood floors. Danielle said they turned off their multiple Echo smart speakers, contacted Amazon and spoke to an Alexa engineer, who apologized multiple times.
Amazon confirmed the error in a statement and explained the improbable series of events that took place for it to happen. It wasn’t a hack or a bug with the device, but a case of Alexa’s always-listening microphones mishearing a series of words and mistakenly sending a voice message.
“Echo woke up due to a word in background conversation sounding like ‘Alexa.’ Then, the subsequent conversation was heard as a ‘send message’ request,” Amazon said in a statement. “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’. As unlikely as this string of events is, we are evaluating options to make this case even less likely.”
The Echo only confirms a contact name if there are multiple people in an address book with the same or similar sounding names.
It’s unknown if the couple had the volume turned all the way down on their device or if they just didn’t hear Alexa’s multiple spoken replies during the message process. The colored ring on Echo speakers also lights up when the device is active.
While voice technology is increasingly popular, there are lingering concerns about privacy issues associated with having an internet-connected microphone in the home. Companies like Amazon and Google say their devices only begin recording when their microphones hear a trigger word or phrase, like “Alexa” or “Hey Google.”