Since Amazon Alexa debuted about four years ago, many have been worried that with the Echo “always listening” that it could be eavesdropping on you and your personal conversations in your home. And that nightmare actually came to fruition. In Germany, Amazon sent over 17,000 Alexa recordings to another user, by mistake. Allowing that user to eavesdrop on a complete stranger. The user was not trying to eavesdrop on another user, but that is what happened.
Back in August of this year, a German user, Martin Schneider, asked Amazon to send him all of the data that it had collected from him. This is something that anyone in the European Union is able to do now, under the GDPR that passed earlier this year. But what Schneider got instead was thousands of recordings. This raised a red flag, seeing as the customer did not own an Alexa device, and thus never interacted with Alexa. What happened is Amazon sent him recordings from another customer. Schneider took this to Amazon, but the company did not respond to his request. So instead, he took the data to a German publication, who were able to figure out who the person was. This was because virtually every command that was given to Alexa, was in this batch of voice files.
This is a big deal for Amazon and Alexa users, seeing as Amazon could have sent your voice recordings to virtually anyone in the world, “by mistake”. And that is not the way to handle data. If Amazon is not careful, it could end up in the same boat as Facebook is right now. And that would not be a good thing for Amazon. In the past, Amazon hadn’t really collected any information from its users. The only real information that it had from its customers were their orders, as well as addresses and payment information. But now with Alexa, Amazon is getting much more information from all of its users, and it is going to need to get a handle of this issue and better protect its users’ data.
Background: This is not the first time Amazon has gotten into trouble about ending recordings to another user. Back in May of this year, reports broke that Alexa had inadvertently recorded a user’s private conversation. This is not supposed to happen in the first place. But to top it all off, it then sent that voice recording to another user. Needless to say, that was a real invasion of privacy. At least with the situation in Germany, Schneider only got voice recordings of Alexa commands and not conversations with others in the home. Now Amazon did defend this situation from May by stating that the Echo woke up because it heard a word that sounded like “Alexa” in the background. It then heard a command that sounded like “send message”. After that Alexa asked to whom, and confirmed that person before sending it. So Alexa actually worked the way it was supposed to, but Amazon stated then that it was looking at ways to make sure this doesn’t happen again.
This happens quite often with Alexa. Especially when watching YouTube or TV. As there are commercials or TV shows that will activate Alexa (and even the Google Assistant) and then it’ll be listening to what’s going on. So this is an issue that Amazon does need to solve. And since this happened in May, it seems to have gotten better at not responding to false “Alexa” commands.
Impact: Issues like this is why people are reluctant to put an Echo into their bedroom, bathroom or even their home in general. They are afraid that it might be always listening to what you say – and it actually is, but it’s only supposed to be “always listening” for that trigger word. Amazon is working on Alexa to make it better, but the damage may have already been done. There are many jokes out there about how Amazon is listening to you and sending that information to the NSA, which we have no proof to be true or untrue. But as popular as the Echo has been in recent years (including selling tens of millions in 2018), it’s still not a widely accepted product, solely because of the microphones that are built-in. This is something that Amazon is going to need to fix in the future, if it really wants its Echo devices to be synonymous with everyone in the US and around the world. Hopefully something like this won’t happen again, but who knows.