Our worst nightmares are coming true. At the forefront of this realisation is the story of a couple whose private conversation was recorded by their Amazon Echo device and sent to an employee. What could be worse?!
The couple from Portland, USA, were enjoying a relaxing evening together at home when they received a worrying call from the husband’s employee, who, panicking, said “Unplug your Alexa device right now, you’re being hacked!” He then explained that he had received audio files of the couple’s conversations and sent the files to them as proof.
No, their Amazon Echo device hadn’t been hacked, it had simply misunderstood snippets of conversation (and/or background noise) as a voice command to send a message to the husband’s employee. Amazon claims that the Echo would have asked for final confirmation to send the message, but the couple denies hearing this and were completed unaware they were even being recorded.
This is a common problem amongst voice assistants and smart speakers such as the Amazon Echo (using Alexa), Google Home (using Google) and Apple HomePod (using Siri). Since the devices are designed to be ‘always on’ (most of them don’t have an OFF switch) the chances of them misinterpreting conversations for voice commands are quite high.
My Google Home Mini (example above) has often randomly (and rudely) interrupted conversations with “I’m sorry, I don’t know how to do that yet” even though we haven't asked for help. We are blissfully unaware that Google is even listening to us, forgetting that the device is even on until we need something. Smart speakers and other voice assistant devices are constantly on standby, listening to voice cues and commands – exactly what they were designed for. How are we meant to know if they are not simply listening to us but also recording our conversations?
In the wake of the Facebook privacy scandals, should we be more wary of how companies are collecting our data? Should we start turning off our voice assistants when not in use? Should we stop buying them completely as a protest against our basic human rights? Despite these issues only being associated with Amazon Echo products, how long until we start hearing more and more of these stories occurring with other voice assistant devices?
For the meantime my Google Home Mini is only being switched on when I think I’ll need it most. Do you have a voice assistant or smart speaker? Do you leave yours switched on? Let us know!