by Trisha Jalan

An Amazon Echo device recorded a conversation between an American couple and sent it to an acquaintance on their contact list. The couple was oblivious to the recording and the message until their the acquaintance contacted them and informed them of the recording. The acquaintance had called the woman Danielle, and asked if she and her husband were talking about hardwood floors in the audio, which she confirmed. He then sent her the audio recording sent by the Echo. “Unplug your Alexa devices right now.” he told the couple.

The incident has raised concerns about the privacy of the users of smart speakers, and questions about how much they listen in on users.

Extremely rare occurrence says Amazon

In a statement, Amazon has confirmed the incident and said that the company “determined this was an extremely rare occurrence” and that they are “taking steps to avoid this from happening again.” Providing an explanation of how the message may have been sent, Amazon has elaborated that the device misinterpreted snippets of conversation between the couple as instructions to send the audio 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. 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.

According to the company, the device picked up words from the couple’s conversation and misinterpreted them as a series of “instructions” from the couple to send the message, to whom [name of a contact] and further confirmations. It isn’t clear how the prompts (spoken out loud) for confirmation by the Echo device went unheard by the couple, who reportedly have multiple Echo devices in their home.

The smart speaker is always listening for a “wake” words such as “Alexa” which is its inbuilt virtual assistant. Other wake words include “Amazon” and “Echo”.

Siladitya adds: While Amazon’s claim that this happened due to a glitch (echo picking up a conversation as a voice command) is probably correct but it still raises some important questions. This would not have been possible if the Echo picked up just one misspoken word, it essentially picked up multiple words and interpreted them as multiple commands that led to this specific action? Why is it so easy for this to happen? Why aren’t there more fail-safes from stopping this? This story may have ended up as a bit of a giggle between the couple and their acquaintance would Amazon’s response have been the same if this had led to any harm.

The incident comes just two days after it was reported that Orlando police is using Rekognition, a facial-recognition service developed by Amazon. The software tracks and recognizes faces in real-time from a database provided by another party, in this case, the Orlando Police department. Concerns over state use of data, the privacy of citizens and surveillance were raised after the reports came out.

The smart speaker business

The smart speaker market grew 200% year-on-year, with 9 million units sold in the first quarter of 2018. Amazon Echo is the largest selling smart speaker device. Google Home overtook sales of Echo for the first time two days ago.

Amazon launched three smart speakers – Echo, Echo Dot and Echo Plus for Indian customers in February this year. It added a fourth device – Echo Spot – to its collection last month. The company has partnered with offline retail stores such as Croma, Reliance Digital and others apart from selling on its website. Google launched two models of its smart speakers – Google Home and Google Home Mini last month.

The company also announced that it is partnering with Bengaluru-based builder Embassy group to introduce Alexa-enabled smart homes to Indian customers, The Economic Times reported.