Monday , 24 September 2018
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Amazon’s Echo privacy flub has big implications for IT

Amazon has confirmed a report that one of its Echo devices recorded a family’s conversation and then messaged it to a random person on the family’s contact list, who is an employee of a family member.

But Amazon, in a statement emailed to Computerworld, confirmed every privacy advocate’s worst nightmare with its explanation: “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 customer’s 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.”

For the record, the family says they didn’t hear the Echo saying anything. Both versions may be correct. If the family was in a heated discussion — and had no reason to focus their attention on the Echo device — they might not have heard or noticed the Echo speaking.

Personally, as disturbing as this incident is, I find it all too likely. In communicating with Siri, I have heard it often “mishear” a word as a command and then act on it. Once I was preparing to text someone and my landline phone (yes, I still have one) rang. When I was done, I was amused that Siri’s voice recognition had transcribed my end of that phone conversation and was about to text it to my contact. If it interpreted any word I spoke as being close to “send,” it would have done it.

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