Amazon Alexa Instantaneously Justifies Years Of Surveillance Paranoia

from the I'm-sorry-I-can't-do-that,-Dave dept

I’ll admit that I traditionally haven’t been as paranoid as many people in regards to the surveillance powers of digital assistants like Amazon’s Alexa or Google Home. Yes, putting an always-on microphone in your home likely provides a wonderful new target for intelligence agencies and intruders to spy on you. That said, it’s not like a universe of internet of broken things or smart TVs aren’t doing the same thing, before you even get to the problem with lax to nonexistent privacy standards governing the smartphone currently listening quietly in your pocket and tracking your every location.

That said, nobody should ever labor under the false impression that good opsec involves leaving always on, internet-connected microphones sitting everywhere around your house.

One Portland family learned this the hard way when their Amazon Alexa unit recorded a part of a private conversation and randomly sent it to somebody in her contact list. According to local Seattle affiliate Kiro 7, the family was contacted by a coworker who stated that he was receiving audio files of private conversations that had occurred in the family’s house:

“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 the (recipient of the message) said ‘You sat there talking about hardwood floors.’ And we said, ‘oh gosh, you really did hear us.'”

Danielle listened to the conversation when it was sent back to her, and she couldn’t believe someone 176 miles away heard it too.

“I felt invaded,” she said. “A total privacy invasion. Immediately I said, ‘I’m never plugging that device in again, because I can’t trust it.'”

To its credit, Amazon quickly came clean and confirmed that this happened without the kind of idiotic denials and subsequent tap dancing you might normally see from a company in 2018. In a statement, the company indicated that the leak was an “extremely rare occurrence” where Alexa repeatedly seemed to misunderstand random words as commands:

“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 customers 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.”

This really does seem to be a rare occurrence where the unit simply misinterpreted what was said, and the owners either ignored (or couldn’t hear) the unit repeatedly asking for confirmation. That said, nothing about this story is going to ease those justly paranoid about the potential here for abuse, especially in a country where meaningful punishment for massive privacy violations are often nonexistent (looking at you, Equifax), and existing privacy protections are either being eliminated or have all the teeth of modestly-damp cardboard.

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Companies: amazon

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Comments on “Amazon Alexa Instantaneously Justifies Years Of Surveillance Paranoia”

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43 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

SO I'm right yet again. Thanks, minion.

And one of these days, you kids may suddenly notice that THE BIGGEST SPY IS GOOGLE.

Snowden said Google give NSA "direct access". Never refuted. Google’s tentacles spread even to tiny blogs:
https://copia.is/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/sponsors.png
which explains why its spying is never mentioned as a problem here.

DNY (profile) says:

Re: Re: SO I'm right yet again. Thanks, minion.

Ah, perhaps he’s merely one of their minions, too. I recalled one of item from “Cellblock A” of the Evil Overlord list at http://www.eviloverlord.com/lists/dungeon_a.html :

109.I will see to it that plucky young lads/lasses in strange clothes and with the accent of an outlander shall REGULARLY climb some monument in the main square of my capital and denounce me, claim to know the secret of my power, rally the masses to rebellion, etc. That way, the citizens will be jaded in case the real thing ever comes along.

DannyB (profile) says:

The Pessimists are ALWAYS right

Because Optimists are full of blue sky daydreaming. Unicorns and rainbows.

People were called paranoid before the 2013 Snowden revelations. Then everyone realized that things were already far worse than the paranoid people said.

Others raises the point about putting mega corporation devices into your private spaces that can listen in on you all the time. And so called “Smart TVs” that can spy on your with a webcam built into the TV. (Didn’t TD already cover that one.)

But people will dismiss it as a fluke. An anomaly. One more in a long, long, long pattern of anomalies. People will go back to sleep because the sweet addictive toys are just too wonderful to put down. IoT everywhere! An app for every private part of your life.

Give me liberty or give me something of lesser or equal value. Or a coupon for it.
As long as it is entertaining and amusing.
Oh, look! A shiny! Version 3.0! And it’s on sale!

Anonymous Coward says:

Meh...

Expected actual proof that surveillance organizations were using amazon echo, et al. to perform invasive surveillance. Was disappointed in the story.

Basically was an Alexa “butt dial”.

I had a good laugh the other day when my boss was repeatedly yelling at Cortana to stop – I don’t know what it was doing, but obviously Cortana had heard him say something and proceeded to perform some action that he was very upset about.

All these “smart” assistants are just making us stupid – we need to get back to doing shit ourselves.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Meh...

Brilliant!

There has to be a conversational way to do a:

while(1) {fork;}

on these things. It is now my mission to find find it, and crash every one I am ever near.

My other thought was to make one of those electronic fart gags really tiny, and program it to run repeatedly from 3 – 5 A.M. so I can leave it next to these things in other peoples houses. That way they get nothing but commercials for fart meds.

What? You didn’t notice that farting in front of a TV changes your advertising?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Meh...

“Expected actual proof that surveillance organizations were using amazon echo, et al. to perform invasive surveillance. Was disappointed in the story.”

What do you consider to be a “surveillance organization”? Does it have to be a governmental TLA or can it be a corporation … how about a PAC, or maybe a church?

idearat (profile) says:

Re: Meh...

I’ve also used the butt dial description for this incident.

Most articles repeating the story loved to jump on the surveillance bandwagon. What was worse was characterizing the voice recordings going to a “random person” or “a stranger” when it was sent to one of the person’s contacts. I guess it sounded like a better story to ignore that it was sent to a person known to the family, and one who’s contact info had been uploaded by them when the voice messaging feature was enabled.

My guess is that volume on the offending Echo was turned down and probably the request tone turned off. If Amazon wanted to avoid similar embarrassment in the future they could override the current settings and make sure for voice messaging that the volume is a minimum level and higher than ambient noise, and that request tone is always used.

David (profile) says:

I use gmail.

The Alexi failure is normal for that problem space. Failure is not assumed, so it’s a surprise when it happens.

I *know* the failure will happen. Thus I do not use it. If it goes out on the net, it is readable on the net.

It is somewhat funny that the Xbox One had the always on mic and got hammered for it. Yet, people actually buy Alexi and similar products. Strange.

Scote (profile) says:

Uhm, no, once instance isn't justification of paranoia

“Amazon Alexa Instantaneously Justifies Years Of Surveillance Paranoia”

Yeah, no. Some accidental false positiveness are a real potential problem for a product that is always on listening for commands, but this instance doesn’t actually justify “Years Of Surveillance Paranoia” about amazon. There plenty of real threats, out there, and this is part of that landscape, but don’t make this incident more than it actually is, a very, very rare accident.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Uhm, no, once instance isn't justification of paranoia

don’t make this incident more than it actually is, a very, very rare accident.

Emailing your conversation to someone is "very, very rare". Sending parts of it to Amazon must be happening much more frequently. It starts uploading when it (thinks it) hears the "wake word".

Anonymous Coward says:

For a string of reasons I’ve never wanted IoTings in my home space. For another I don’t allow wifi to be enabled here.

One of my reasons for not allowing is the shining example that was given to use about the digital music and buying it on line. Some years later while you are building your library suddenly some company (yes you Microsoft) decides they are not making enough money and pulls the plug on the authorizing servers. If you had not burned a copy to cd it was gone, your money you spend with it gone too.

I am yet to hear why I should want something like a digital thermostat that maybe some few years down the line the company decides it doesn’t want to support any more and pulls the servers. I see it as my choice to do without AC and heat or be forced to buy another one to replace one that was functioning just fine till the server was pulled.

Call me a tin foil hat wearer or what ever. I am just not going to welcome these digital long distance spy wonders into my living space.

If you are an early adopter and want that, fine. Go for it. I’m a whole lot more suspicious about testing out some corporations ideas about making money off your lifestyle with the ability to turn over anything demanded of it to whomever ever with proper demands or often with improper demands.

It’s not that my place is a hot bed of illegal activity nor the center of some massive criminal operation. It’s a matter of privacy and the idea that there are some prosecutors out there who do not seek justice as much as they seek fame. They’d rather have a guilty verdict than serve justice for the innocent.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I am much of the same mind, except for WiFi. For that I use a 64 digit randomly selected password comprised of lowercase, uppercase, and numbers (my router (Tomato OS) did that for me). Rather than trying to type it, I use copy and paste for those few devices I allow access (though I had to type it into my HP printer until it became impossible to get ink for that, and it got tossed). Some devices don’t allow for a 64 digit password, my Roku for example, so it doesn’t get used anymore.

Personanongrata says:

Welcome to the Total Surveillance State

Amazon Alexa Instantaneously Justifies Years Of Surveillance Paranoia

Amazon Alexa and a smart phone – what is the difference?

Aren’t they both Surveillance devices?

At least Alexa has the common decency to stay at home while your smart phone can surveil your every move 24/7/365.

Get off my cyber-lawn! (profile) says:

Similar almost happened to me

was on office phone with my iphone propped on my desk. During conversation I said “Sir, I…” next thing I know my iphone SIRI function is searching for stuff on my iphone. Immediately realised what happened and shut that down fast. Went into settings and they’d reverted during last “update” evidently so had to turn off the SIRI functions again. UGH

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