We’ve welcomed smart speakers into our homes with the kind of enthusiasm you don’t normally see around always-on listening devices, because from the very beginning, Amazon stressed that Alexa wasn’t snooping on your conversations, and the data wasn’t being used for anything nefarious. While that might be true most of the time, every rule has an exception, as a family in Portland recently learned.
The woman, whose first name is Danielle, told KIRO7 News she received a phone call two weeks ago. “Unplug your Alexa devices right now,” the person on the other end of the line said. “You’re being hacked.” The caller turned out to be an employee of her husband, who had been receiving recordings of what was said in the house without her permission. But she wasn’t hacked — it was a bug with their Amazon Echos, which they had in every room.
“We unplugged all of them and he proceeded to tell us that he had received audio files of recordings from inside our house,” Danielle 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.'”
Amazon confirmed the issue in a roundabout way, saying in a statement that “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.”
Danielle told KIRO7 that she spoke with an Amazon engineer, who also confirmed that it was due to some kind of bug:
“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!”
It’s unclear what caused the issue and whether it’s more widespread than just one Echo, although Amazon stressed the problem was “extremely rare.” The Echo does have a bunch of communications features, like the ability to “drop in” to someone else’s Echo, or to send audio messages. This could be an improbably unusual combination of mis-interpreted commands by the Echo, but it’s still creepy as hell.