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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  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 25 May 2018 @ 1:57pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 25 May 2018 @ 2:13pm

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

      If the tentacles were really as pervasive as you claim, why would they allow you to live and continue to expose them? Most realistic answer:
      You are nuts.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 26 May 2018 @ 2:31am

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

        You seem to be utterly oblivious to the fact that you don't have to murder people to control them. I'm frankly astounded and somewhat horrified that your comment got modded insightful here of all websites.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        DNY (profile), 26 May 2018 @ 3:17am

        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.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Stephen T. Stone (profile), 25 May 2018 @ 2:44pm

      Re:

      If you put half as much effort into doing something genuinely productive vis-รก-vis the issue of surveillance technology as you do into building your ego by tearing down other people who are truly sincere in their efforts and beliefs, you might have done something useful by now.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      bob, 25 May 2018 @ 3:14pm

      Re: SO you're wrong yet again. Thanks

      Obviously you didnt take the time to even do a search of past articles.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 25 May 2018 @ 7:57pm

      Re:

      You realize most, if not all of the copyright law enforcement relies on the surveillance you bitch about so much, right?

      Do you parse a single thought through your brain before you rush to savage the hand that feeds you with bites?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    DannyB (profile), 25 May 2018 @ 2:05pm

    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!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Jeremy Lyman (profile), 30 May 2018 @ 7:33am

      Re: The Pessimists are ALWAYS right

      The pessimists are always wrong.

      Note: to determine the validity of this statement, you must first determine whether I am an optimist or a pessimist.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 25 May 2018 @ 3:19pm

    Umm 3rd party doctrine for the win??

    Sorry who did not understand this was the idea from the beginning?

    "Have you seen what they do to valuable natural resources?"
    --Utah Phillips

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 25 May 2018 @ 4:03pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 25 May 2018 @ 4:51pm

      Re: Meh...

      "Cortana, download all the porn on the internet and don't stop until you have it all."

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 26 May 2018 @ 5:01am

        Re: Re: Meh...

        I make my Cortana search rule34 of herself.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 26 May 2018 @ 7:00am

        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?

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 25 May 2018 @ 5:36pm

      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?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      idearat (profile), 25 May 2018 @ 6:03pm

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 25 May 2018 @ 7:08pm

        Re: Re: Meh...

        Yup - no big deal, nothing to see here, move along.

        The lack of concern for transgressions like these empowers some to increase the rep rate and dial up the level of incursion. Thanks a lot.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 28 May 2018 @ 7:59am

        Re: Re: Meh...

        > when it was sent to one of the person's contacts

        That might be even worse.

        (Think about it.)

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 25 May 2018 @ 4:03pm

    Sorry, but if it is just, it isn't paranoid.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Coyne Tibbets (profile), 25 May 2018 @ 4:30pm

    Paranoid? Paranoid??!

    You're only paranoid if the government doesn't actually want to listen in on everything you say.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    David (profile), 25 May 2018 @ 4:32pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    BroD, 25 May 2018 @ 4:37pm

    This technology revolution

    is a mess. Just one never-ending string of fuck-ups.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Scote, 25 May 2018 @ 4:52pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile), 25 May 2018 @ 5:04pm

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

      What the article, nor Amazon, nor Microsoft, nor any other company that runs digital assistants with always on microphones is how much of the conversations they hear they collect, keep, and analyse. Asking them wont help either.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 25 May 2018 @ 5:25pm

      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".

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 25 May 2018 @ 5:37pm

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

      Yeah - nothing to see here, move alone.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile), 25 May 2018 @ 6:04pm

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

        Not really. If it doesn't get discussed, then it won't get fixed. Fixed is a long way off, but we will never get there if we don't discuss it. Every journey starts with a single, or maybe multiple steps.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 25 May 2018 @ 5:13pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile), 25 May 2018 @ 5:26pm

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Toom1275 (profile), 25 May 2018 @ 5:55pm

    Reminds me of this meme: https://i.imgur.com/iVruWs1.jpg

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 25 May 2018 @ 6:07pm

    Your Honor,

    I did not download the movie "Industrial biker babe saves the world". It was Alexa.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    ECA (profile), 25 May 2018 @ 10:15pm

    Proof

    That every child in your home is a Tape/digital recorder...
    NEVER think you are safe..

    Even the TOP roku has Voice search..

    I DO NOT need any device listening to me.. OR WAITING to listen to me..

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Cowherd, 26 May 2018 @ 7:31am

    Everyone knows voice controls only work properly on Star Trek.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    John Snape (profile), 27 May 2018 @ 9:19am

    instantly vs. instantaneously

    Back when grammar seemed to matter, 'instantly' was used when one incident immediately caused another, while 'instantaneously' was used when two unrelated incidents happened at the same time.

    A personal pet peeve.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Mark Wing, 28 May 2018 @ 4:37am

    Maybe they'll fix the bug in Alexa where it interprets every word with the letter I in it as "Renew Prime for 5 years."

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Rekrul, 29 May 2018 @ 3:39pm

    Does Alexa even allow you to change the activation word to something that's not likely to ever come up in casual conversation?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Personanongrata, 30 May 2018 @ 3:34pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Get off my cyber-lawn! (profile), 31 May 2018 @ 9:15am

    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

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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