The Spy in Your Living Room

Alexa Recording

“Alexa, are you spying on me?”

Many of you might remember the article I wrote last week about how much fun I was having with my Amazon.com Inc. (Nasdaq: AMZN) Echo Spot.

Alexa — Amazon’s digital assistant, which lives in devices such as the Echo Spot — has turned my morning routine around. Now it’s a breezy game of “how much can I learn while I’m brushing my teeth?”

If I had to compare the smart speaker to something, I’d say it’s like having a live-in research assistant sitting in the corner of my home, hunched and silent. That is, until I yell out her name and ask her to explain why Jupiter has the shortest day of all the planets in our solar system. (I was on an astronomy kick this week.)

A live-in assistant! Sounds helpful, right?

It does. But … it also sounds incredibly creepy.

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Alexa Recording Conversation

And I was reminded of that this week when I read a news story about Alexa recording a couple’s conversation and sending it to a random contact … without them knowing.

Here’s what happened: A woman in Portland, Oregon, was talking to her husband — unaware that Alexa was recording the exchange. Something they said sounded like the wake-up word, Alexa. Shortly after, a phrase they said sounded like “send message.”

At that point, Alexa responded with: “To whom?”

Alexa interpreted their next words as a name in the customer’s contact list. She said: “[Contact name], right?” And whatever the couple said must have sounded like “right,” because that audio was sent out into the universe.

The only reason the couple discovered this is because the person who received the message called them to say they were being hacked. He’d heard their entire conversation about hardwood floors.

Was it hacking? Not so much.

Breach of privacy, though? You bet — even if it was accidental.

Amazon calls this string of unfortunate events an unlikely scenario that will probably never repeat. But we can’t ignore what happened.

The wife even said: “I felt invaded — a total privacy invasion. Immediately, I said: ‘I’m never plugging that device in again, because I can’t trust it.’”

And that breach of trust is a valid concern.

According to a March report, about 1 in 5 American adults have access to a smart speaker. Even more, about 41 million U.S. consumers use Amazon Echos at least once a month.

We’re living in a world where the boundaries around our private lives are getting thinner and thinner. What I do in the privacy of my home, the privacy of my computer or even the privacy of my bank account is ever more likely to find its way into the world.

Remember all the data breaches of 2017: Almost every week, we heard something new. As Gizmodo reported: “The personal information of every U.S. voter was leaked; the Social Security numbers of more than a hundred million Americans were stolen; and a slew of retail businesses exposed untold amounts of your financial data.”

It’s an unnerving pattern.

So if you’re as concerned by this troubling trend as I am, then I urge you to investigate ways to keep these breaches at bay. Hold off the privacy invasions with mindfulness about your passwords, your social media and your methods of communication online.

We don’t want advances in technology to get the best of us.

If protecting all of your data sounds like an overwhelming workload, don’t worry. You can easily get started by clicking here.

As for what Alexa said when I asked her if she was spying on me, it was this:

“I only send audio back to Amazon when I hear you say the wake word. For more information, and to view Amazon’s privacy notice, visit the help section of your Alexa app or alexa.amazon.com.”

Clearly, I need to be careful of whatever I say that even sounds like the wake word. And the thought of censoring myself in my own home is making me rethink my shiny new live-in assistant.

Even if she does know a lot about Jupiter.

Catch you next week.

Regards,

Jessica Cohn-Kleinberg

Managing Editor, Banyan Hill Publishing