Many people conscious of protecting and preserving our civil rights (myself included) have written articles to raise consciousness about the ominous technologies rolling out from Big Tech companies such as Amazon.
Despite assurances that it is for our own (targeted marketing) good that their smart speaker products collect and transmit our private conversations back to Amazon computer server, more and more consumers are leery of the threat to privacy these tattle-tale devices present.
In case you are unfamiliar with Amazon’s Echo and its bundled intelligent personal assistant service “Alexa,” the integrated microphone/speaker system is activated by a “wake word” (factory defaults are “Amazon,” “Echo,” or “Computer,” which may be personally configured. The system also pairs with cell phones.
After Alexa “recognizes” a wake-up word (i.e., matches the sound to a database of known sounds and what they represent), Echo starts audio recording through its onboard microphones a fraction of a second before the wake-up words.
While waiting for a user’s wake-up word, an Echo system captures audio fragments. The intelligent speakers keep records of all Alexa communications, as well as those made by connected devices paired to it (e.g., cell phones) until the user deletes them manually.
Every time the user speaks the wake-up word, Amazon computer servers receive copies of the recorded data. An Echo records your voice and transfers it to a processor for analysis so that it can fulfill requests or answer questions. The recordings are streamed and stored remotely and can be reviewed or deleted over time.
That’s the theory, at least, according to the manufacturer, Amazon. In reality, there have already been glitches. Alarming glitches.
Consider the case of a family in Portland, Oregon who, less than a year ago, “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.”
In late May 2018, Danielle said she and her husband “would joke and say I’d bet these devices are listening to what we’re saying.” But not no more. This household had bought into the smart home hype and had wired up Amazon devices to control the home’s heat, lighting, and security system.
Then, out of the blue, one of Danielle’s husband’s employees phone with an alarming message:
“Unplug you Alexa devices right now – you’re being hacked!”
According to Danielle, the man revealed shocking news after they followed his instructions:
“We unplugged all of them and he proceeded to tell us that he had received audio files of recordings from inside our house. 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.'”
This obvious and undeniable invasion of privacy, although merely a technological “oopsy-doodle” as far as Amazon was concerned, cost the tech giant the trust of at least one customer:
“I felt invaded,” Danielle said. “A total privacy invasion. Immediately I said, ‘I’m never plugging that device in again because I can’t trust it.'”
Danielle disconnected all the spyware and finally got through to an Amazon engineer who “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!'”
The engineer was vague and non-specific about the cause of this problem and how many other customers were reporting it. According to Danielle, “He told us that the device just guessed what we were saying.”
This, of course, in no way explains how a person 176 miles away received copies of her private at-home conversations. When pressed for more information, Amazon responded with an official “golly, we’re sorry” statement:
“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.”
Here is Amazon’s ultimate and final word on what really happened to Danielle and her husband, from Amazon representative Shelby Lichliter:
“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 isn’t the only organization “evaluating options” regarding the always-on-the-alert eavesdropping Echo/Alexa dual system. An online search for “stop alexa” produced pages of helpful articles with titles like “How to Stop Amazon from Listening to your Alexa Recordings” and “6 Ways to Keep Alexa from Eavesdropping on You.”
Consumers with a shred of concern over their personal information, privacy, and other civil rights are taking steps to disarm the spyware being sold to us under the guise of convenience and genuine concern for our well-being. Ironic, isn’t it?