Since the time Alexa was released I have been adamantly opposed to having it or any similar device in my home. They’re not eavesdropping, sure. Any time I shared that fear I was looked at as if I was a wacky conspiracy theorist. Now there’s a story illustrating precisely why my adamant opposition was justified and why it won’t change.
A young Portland couple whose home was outfitted with a full complement of Alexa devices received a phone call from one of the husband’s employees (who lives in Seattle) that changed their view on the intrusive technology. After an unsatisfactory resolution from Amazon, Danielle shared her story with local news station KIRO.
Every room in their home was connected to Alexa, from which the couple controlled the home’s lights, heat, and security system. Danielle told the news station:
“‘My husband and I would randomly joke and say, I’d bet these devices are listening to what we’re saying.’
“But…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 she said ,’You sat there talking about hardwood floors.’ And we said, ‘oh gosh, you really did hear us.’
“The employee, 176 miles away, received the recording out of the blue.”
That could have been extremely awkward, depending on what activities the couple were undertaking at the time.
After unplugging the devices, Danielle called Amazon to find out what the heck was going on.
“‘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!”
According to Danielle, the engineer said the device guessed at what they were saying and sent the audio file. Amazon didn’t confirm that, but told KIRO:
“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 asked for a refund on all of their Alexa products, but Amazon would rather just “de-provision”her devices. She doesn’t want them anywhere near her and is still fighting for a full refund.
I wonder why?
Are there hundreds or thousands or millions of Alexa devices out there either capable of the same thing or already doing the same thing, unbeknownst to their owners? That isn’t out of the realm of possibility and, if Amazon knows about it, they’re probably keeping an extremely tight lid on it while they scramble to find an acceptable fix.
People across the political spectrum vigorously fight for their privacy in the face of laws like the Patriot Act, yet willingly invite a device they know is listening to every word (how else does it know when to turn on?) into their home, sometimes into each room of their home. How gullible are we?
I would advise against anyone having this technology in their home. I’m even thinking of asking each person whose home I visit if they use Alexa or similar devices. There’s no way I will have conversations in such an environment.