We’ve heard stories over the years where technology has proven that it might as well have a mind of its own.. What would you say, though, if it came to your attention that you were not only being recorded word-for-word, but that your favorite tech gadget was autonomously dispatching everything you say via message to an unauthorized recipient?
One family in Portland, Oregon is grappling with that debacle this week, following claims that one of their smart home-connected Amazon Echo speakers recently recorded a private conversation shared in the comfort of their home, prior to automatically sending the recorded audio clip to a random contact over 171 miles away in Seattle, Washington, local news station KIRO 7 reported.
“My husband and I would joke and say I’d bet these devices are listening to what we’re saying,” said Danielle, who requested that her last name remain anonymous.
Danielle, who along with her husband and kids live in a multi-room home on the outskirts of Portland, told the local news affiliate that every room in her house was wired with an Echo device as a tool to help control certain home features like heating, cooling, lighting and their security system.
About two weeks ago, the report says, Danielle received a strange phone call from one of her husband’s employees located in Seattle, who was saved in their phone contacts.
“The person on the other line said, ‘unplug your Alexa devices right now,’” she said. “’You’re being hacked.’”
“We unplugged all of them and he proceeded to tell us that he had received audio files of recordings from inside our house,” Danielle said. “At first, my husband was, like, ‘no you didn’t!’ And the (recipient of the message) said ‘You sat there talking about hardwood floors.’ And we said, ‘oh gosh, you really did hear us.’”
Deeply skeptical, curious, and wanting a bit of additional confirmation, Danielle requested a copy of the clip from the caller, at whence her and her husband were able to hear it for themselves.
“I felt invaded,” she said. “A total privacy invasion. Immediately I said, ‘I’m never plugging that device in again, because I can’t trust it.’”
Danielle reportedly went from room-to-room, unplugging every last Echo device in her home and then contacting Amazon, repeatedly. She was ultimately successful getting in contact with someone who pledged that an Alexa engineer would investigate the matter.
“They said ‘our engineers went through your logs, and they saw exactly what you told us, they saw exactly what you said happened, and we’re sorry.’ He apologized like 15 times in a matter of 30 minutes and he said we really appreciate you bringing this to our attention, this is something we need to fix!”
Above and beyond that, though, Danielle says the engineer she spoke with failed to address what exactly happened, why it happened, or if the issue is/was a larger epidemic that other Echo owners should be wary of. “He told us that the device just guessed what we were saying” and that’s it, Danielle said, noting that her Echo did not audibly advise her it was going to send the recording, which it’s programmed to do.
When reached for comment by KIRO 7 news, a spokesperson for the e-commerce giant said only that “Amazon takes privacy very seriously. We investigated what happened and determined this was an extremely rare occurrence. We are taking steps to avoid this from happening in the future.”
Though Danielle was hoping Amazon would issue her a refund for the Echo devices she already purchased, representatives with the company apparently said that’s not an option.. They did, however, offer Danielle and her husband the option to “de-provision” their Echo units — essentially disabling the voice recording feature while allowing them to be used exclusively as smart home controls.
We’ll, that’s not exactly what she had in mind, but for her part Danielle appears to be making the best of the situation, and just wants to warn anyone else who uses an Echo device to be cautious of its capabilities.