There is a good deal of voice-activated digital assistants out there, coming from major and minor tech outfits. Some are purpose-built while others are meant to make a user’s life easier in general. Google Now, for example, turns functions that would take a few clicks on your Android smartphone into quick voice commands. With any voice-activated digital assistant, however, there’s always the risk that the assistant could be used by somebody besides you, under certain conditions. Whether it’s Google Now hearing a voice that sounds like yours or Cortana or Siri malfunctioning, it’s an inherent possibility with any kind of voice-response system. As two listeners of KWBU radio in Texas found out the hard way, Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant, featured on their Echo smart speaker and other products, has the same glitch.
The first listener told the radio station about a rather strange incident with his Amazon Echo speaker and the Alexa integration he had set up all throughout his home. Triggered by something in an NPR story that was on, Alexa turned the home’s thermostat to 70 degrees and locked it there. Meanwhile, it began playing an NPR news summary, making it hard to hear the actual NPR story that was causing the strange behavior. Another listener described an incident where their Echo speaker listened to the radio with them and began acting up, though details of the Echo’s actions were left out.
Amazon has reportedly not responded to questions asking about the issue as of yet. A tweet from Wired’s former editor-in-chief, Chris Anderson, implies that this issue, left unsolved, could become very dangerous. His tweet read, “3/ It’s just a great hack. If you overpower the FM band, you can control people’s homes. Maybe even a bullhorn would do it?” While the tweet takes things to a bit of a logical extreme, the point is valid, to an extent. This kind of technology running rampant in such a manner could be exploited in a number of ways, from the mundane to the dangerous. This issue being such a cause for alarm is highly unlikely, but users should be cautioned that misfires are a possibility.