Amazon forced to respond to Echo privacy concerns after Alexa records intimate conversation

Stonewall Amazon / Amazon

Amazon has been forced to issue a statement explaining a malfunction that caused Alexa to record a customer's private conversation and send it to a contact.

A woman in Portland, identified only as Danielle, told KIRO 7, a Washington state TV station, that her Echo had recorded a conversation between herself and her husband and shared it with one of the latter's employees in Seattle.

Raising questions about whether the Echo was tuned to always listen in to customers, Danielle said she didn't realise the exchange had been recorded until her husband's co-worker contacted her with specific details about the chat.

She then said she felt "invaded" and described the incident as a "total privacy invasion," adding that she was "never plugging the device in again".

Amazon confirmed to Danielle that the audio had been sent to the number, but said this was an "extremely rare occurrence".

In a later statement, the company went into greater detail about what had happened, and why Alexa had forwarded the conversation.

“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 customer’s contact list. Alexa then asked out loud, ‘[contact name], right?’ Alexa then interpreted background conversation as ‘right’.”

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

'Creepy laugh'

Amazon has always maintained that its smart speaker only listens in when activated. Users can review, listen and delete the audio Amazon holds on them in their Echo settings menu.

However, this isn't the first time the firm has been forced to explain unusual behaviour from Alexa.

Back in March, the e-commerce giant issued an urgent update after the AI developed a glitch which caused it to randomly erupt into fits of "creepy" laughter.

Unamused customers were quick to voice complaints about the rogue speakers after being freaked out by the unsolicited response, including some who were woken in the middle of the night and others who were caught off guard while watching TV.

Once again, Amazon said "rare circumstances" had caused its speaker may pick up a "false positive" for the command "Alexa, laugh", prompting the bizarre behavior.

Among Amazon's many patent applications is one that could potentially allow Alexa to listen into users at all times to build up a detailed picture of what consumers buy, or want to buy, from Amazon.

The patent, filed in April 2018, suggested that in future Alexa could listen out for certain words like 'love' or 'hate' to glean consumers' preferences.

The next issue of The Drum's print magazine will be dedicated to voice and will be published on 13 June. Find out more about subscriptions here.

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