Hearing ache: After Amazon Echo sent private convo to contact, what can be done?

WASHINGTON — Maybe Alexa needs to have her ears checked out.

A Portland, Oregon, family recently experienced a rude privacy invasion: Their Amazon Echo with the Alexa personal assistant recorded their private conversation and then sent the recording to an acquaintance in Seattle.

The circumstances have been called “unlikely” by Amazon and experts alike.

“It is a very, very rare and unusual situation,” Ken Coburn, founder and CEO of Data Doctors Computer Services, told WTOP on Friday.

“Probably got a better chance of winning the lottery than having this happen in your home.”

So what exactly happened?

Amazon said the Echo interpreted a word in the background conversation as “Alexa” — a command that makes it wake up — and then it interpreted the conversation as a “send message” request.

“At which point, Alexa said out loud ‘To whom?’” the statement said. “At which point, the background conversation was interpreted as a name in the customers contact list.

“Alexa then asked out loud, ‘(contact name), right?’ Alexa then interpreted background conversation as ‘right,’” which is part of the Echo’s “follow-up.”

The statement continued: “As unlikely as this string of events is, we are evaluating options to make this case even less likely.”

Still, some consumers could be wondering how they can protect themselves and their privacy.

What can you do?

Not a heck of a lot, Coburn said. “Amazon’s the only one that can truly fix this.”

“You’ve got to understand: You’re kind of a guinea pig with this sort of stuff,” he said. “So if you’re going to have this stuff in your home, expect some strange stuff to happen.”

There are some preventative steps customers can take, however.

Two, in particular.

“One is turn off that follow-up capability so that any time you want to get engaged with Alexa, you have to use the wake-up word,” Coburn told WTOP.

That can be found in Settings in the Alexa phone app.

The second is for customers to go through their History via the app and listen to and look at what Alexa has been recording.

That way, consumers can have a “sense of how it’s working with you,” Coburn said.

When you tap on any entry in the History, you will be able to see the date and time of the command, along with a play button if you want to hear it.

If you want to delete the recording, simply tap the “Delete Voice Recordings” bar, and it’s gone.

There is one final thing to bear in mind, Coburn said.

“Since this was [an Echo], it’s really very likely it was in another room, away from the conversation, but within earshot. So that’s another thing to think about,” he said.

Hopefully, this won’t result in any ALEXA 9000 moments in our future.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Will Vitka

William Vitka is a Digital Writer/Editor for WTOP.com. He's been in the news industry for over a decade. Before joining WTOP, he worked for CBS News, Stuff Magazine, The New York Post and wrote a variety of books—about a dozen of them, with more to come.

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