A Portland family contacted Amazon to investigate after they say a private conversation in their home was recorded by Amazon’s Alexa — the voice-controlled smart speaker — and that the recorded audio was sent to the phone of a random person in Seattle, who was in the family’s contact list.
“My husband and I would joke and say I’d bet these devices are listening to what we’re saying,” said Danielle, who did not want us to use her last name.
Every room in her family home was wired with the Amazon devices to control her home’s heat, lights and security system.
But Danielle said two weeks ago their love for Alexa changed with an alarming phone call. “The person on the other line said, ‘unplug your Alexa devices right now,'” she said. “‘You’re being hacked.'”
That person was one of her husband’s employees, calling from Seattle.
“We unplugged all of them and he proceeded to tell us that he had received audio files of recordings from inside our house,” she 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.'”
Danielle listened to the conversation when it was sent back to her, and she couldn’t believe someone 176 miles away heard it too.
“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 says she unplugged all the devices, and she repeatedly called Amazon. She says an Alexa engineer investigated.
“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!”
But Danielle says the engineer did not provide specifics about why it happened, or if it’s a widespread issue.
“He told us that the device just guessed what we were saying,” she said. Danielle said the device did not audibly advise her it was preparing to send the recording, something it’s programmed to do.
When KIRO 7 asked Amazon questions, they sent this response:
“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.”
Thursday afternoon, Amazon spokeswoman Shelby Lichliter sent this statement:
“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.”
Amazon offered to “de-provision” Danielle’s Alexa communications so she could keep using its Smart Home Features. But Danielle is hoping Amazon gives her a refund for her devices, which she said their representatives have been unwilling to do. She says she’s curious to find out if anyone else has experienced the same issue.
“A husband and wife in the privacy of their home have conversations that they’re not expecting to be sent to someone (in) their address book,” she said.