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A Wild Series of Coincidences Made an Echo Eavesdrop, But It Probably Won’t Happen to You

An Amazon Echo is in trouble for recording a conversation and sending it to a user’s employee. The company’s explanation is that this is a really big coincidence, and they’re probably right.

A Portland woman named Danielle gave an interview to a local radio station where she claimed that her Amazon Echo recorded their conversation and sent it to a random contact that just happened to be her husband’s employee. The Echo used part of its relatively new messaging system (not to be confused with Drop In, which also allows you to communicate with other people) to send the message. But how in the world could this happen without the user’s approval?

According to Amazon’s official statement, it was all just a zany, sit-com level coincidence where the Echo heard what it thought was an initial command to send a message, what it thought was a person’s name, and what it thought was confirmation to send the 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.”

On its face, this might seem absurd, but if you own an Echo, you might know the mild annoyance of your Echo lighting up when you say something like “I’ll ask her” because it’s just a little too close to “Alexa.” According to Amazon, the errant message was sent because Danielle’s Echo made this mistake three times in a row. Presumably, the couple didn’t hear the Echo asking for confirmation, either, but Echo users might also be familiar with their devices turning on from the other room so this isn’t that unbelievable either.

As unlikely as it might sound, with Amazon (and Google) shipping millions of these devices all over the world, it was bound to happen. In fact, it’s almost surprising it hasn’t happened sooner. While it’s very unlikely that this would happen to any individual person, the more people there are with Echos, the more chances there are for something to go awry. It’s like how you might have an effectively zero percent chance of winning the lottery, but someone is definitely going to win the lottery in the near future.

Of course, Amazon is still on the hook for this in an another way. While you do have to set up the messaging feature in your Echo, once it’s done it’s not exactly clear how to turn it off. You can block contacts one-by-one to prevent Alexa from messaging them, but if you want to disable messaging and calling entirely, you have to call Amazon on the phone. The Communications tab under an individual Echo’s settings, however, says you can not disable Calling & Messaging unless you’re in “FreeTime mode” which is the parental control feature on Echo devices.

It’s unclear why Amazon won’t let you disable calling and messaging after you’ve set it up, but if you want to be absolutely sure Alexa can’t make the same unlucky mistake with you, it’s probably best to either block all of your contacts in the Alexa app, or never enable calling and messaging to begin with.

Source: Wired

Eric Ravenscraft Eric Ravenscraft
Eric Ravenscraft has nearly a decade of writing experience in the technology industry. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, PCMag, The Daily Beast, Geek and Sundry, and The Inventory. Read Full Bio »