Amazon explains fluke that saw Alexa send a private conversation to a contact

Two weeks ago, a Portland, Ore. couple’s Echo device mistakenly recorded their conversation and sent it to a Seattle resident who was on their contact list. Now, Amazon has offered clarification on the incident, citing an ‘unlikely string of events’ that prompted the device to record — and disseminate — the family’s private conversation.

The Seattle-based tech giant says Alexa, the virtual assistant that powers Amazon’s current suite of smart speakers, interpreted a recent background conversation regarding hardwood floors as confirmation to record and send the audio.

Amazon sent Digital Trends the following statement regarding the incident:

“Echo woke up due to a word in the 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.”

The couple’s home was equipped with a string of smart home devices, which were set up to control heating, lighting, and their home security system. “My husband and I would joke and say, ‘I’d bet these devices are listening to what we’re saying,'” Danielle, who declined to give her last name, told KIRO-TV.

The Portland residents only learned of the error when the person who received the voice message, her husband’s employee, called to alert them. “The person on the other line said, ‘Unplug your Alexa devices right now. You’re being hacked,'” Danielle said.

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The family unplugged their Alexa-enabled devices after the recipient of the message confirmed the subject of their conversation. What had been a family joke suddenly became an ugly reality. “I felt invaded,” Danielle said. “A total privacy invasion. I said, ‘I’m never plugging that device in again because I can’t trust it.'”

Danielle contacted Amazon for an immediate investigation into the matter, and in a statement issued to Ars Technica, Amazon later confirmed, via device logs, that Alexa had indeed listened, recorded, and sent the conversation to the contact in question.

Amazon apologized and provided no further explanation; the engineer said Alexa assumed the wrong command had been given. Danielle also said that, although Alexa is supposed to inform senders before transmitting recordings, they recieved no audible notice.

Amazon reportedly offered to shut off Alexa’s communication features on behalf of the family, but Danielle said she would prefer a refund. So far, according to the Fox affiliate, Amazon has not agreed to refund the family’s costs for the devices.

Updated on May 24: Added Amazon’s statement.

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