Amazon recently had to answer to the U.S. Senate after it was confirmed that a product in their virtual assistant line, the Amazon Echo, recorded and then forwarded a private, household conversation to a third party.

While there are technical disagreements between the household and Amazon over whether the recording and forwarding of the conversation was unauthorized, Amazon has now had to answer to Congress regarding privacy concerns that have arisen over the incident.

Virtual Assistant Recognized Private Conversation As An Instruction

Amazon defends their product by claiming that the virtual assistant, Alexa, only woke up, after hearing a word in the conversation that sounded like the wake word, “Alexa.” Then after the virtual assistant woke up, it heard the “send message” command.  After Alexa asked the household to whom the message should be sent to, Alexa asked for confirmation that it should be sent to the contact it named and then proceeded to do so after hearing verbal confirmation.

The problem with this scenario is that the household claims that every word that Alexa heard was incorrect and misinterpreted.  The household claims that they were having a conversation, never heard Alexa ask any of these questions, and that Alexa misconstrued all the background conversation into confirmation to improperly record and send the conversation to a third party. Further, the family was only alerted to the faux pas after the recipient of the conversation, an employee of the father of the family, contacted the father to let him know.

Virtual Assistants Record And Save All Conversations, To Get To Know You Better

“Alexa” is not the only assistant accused of spying on us.  In 2017, a reporter caught a Google Home Mini virtual assistant not only recording happenings in his household but sending that information back to Google. Google, in response, issued a firmware update to their virtual assistant devices to address the issue.

Because Amazon defends the recording of conversations as a means to help the virtual assistants improve in responding to consumer commands, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law have stepped in, asking Amazon to answer twenty-nine questions related to Alexa and her listening range.  In their letter, the Subcommittee raises privacy concerns for consumer safety and asks Amazon to take “meaningful action” to change how Alexa works to ensure that the incident will not happen again.

Amazon has already confirmed several times that the devices store everything they hear on Amazon servers and that Amazon users must delete the recordings themselves.  They actively discourage such deletion, however, because they claim that this will negatively impact Alexa’s ability to understand your voice commands accurately.  In the end, Amazon notes that Alexa did ask for confirmation before sending the recording, and that, as such, it functioned properly.  Although it misheard the household’s words, Amazon contends that this is exactly why it needs more recordings, so that it may avoid such mis happenings in the future.

For more information on this topic, please visit our Data Privacy service page, which is part of our Technology & Data services.

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