Alexa Tattles on Couple's Private Conversation

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White Amazon Echo Plus/ Photo By seewhatmitchsee via 123RF


A Portland couple complained that their private conversations were mysteriously recorded by their own Amazon Echo smart speaker and emailed to a business associate of the husband who was based in Seattle, according to Elizabeth Weise, reporting for USA Today.

They were at first skeptical when the husband’s business associate called to tell them he received recordings of their conversations. They realized that business associate was not joking when the latter told them they were having a conversation about hardwood floors. 

Danielle, the name of the woman, told KIRO TV in Seattle, that she felt her privacy was invaded. They own several Echo devices that control the heating, lighting and security system in their house. 

Amazon, the maker of the Echo smart speaker, had confirmed the couple’s story and said an unexpected combination of words was overheard by the Alexa digital assistant, thus triggering the incident. The online retail giant is working to make sure that the inadvertent recording of conversations does not happen again. 

Alexa has four “wake” words that tell the digital assistant to start paying attention: Alexa, Echo, Amazon or Computer. However, Alexa is the default word unless it is changed by the user. Once the wake word is heard by Alexa, it will start sending the conversation to cloud-computing servers, where it's recorded and translated for Alexa to respond to.  

The Echo smart speaker was activated when someone in the couple’s house said something that sounded like “Alexa.” Alexa then misinterpreted the subsequent conversation as something that sounded like a “send a message” request. The digital assistant then asked to whom the recordings should be sent but its audio volume was set so low that the question was not noticed or heard by the couple. It is also possible that the couple was not near Alexa or there were other sources of noise in the room. 

Alexa again misheard something in the background conversation as the name of the recipient of the conversations, which was granted access to Alexa when the digital assistant was installed. Alexa again asked aloud the name of the digital assistant and misinterpreted something in the backward conversation as the word “Right.” Afterward, Alexa sent the recorded message to the business associate in Seattle to the embarrassment of the couple -- and Amazon.