Danielle and her husband wanted to spruce up their Portland home. Unknown to the American couple, Alexa was listening into their plans of installing hardwood floors.
Alexa is not the nosy neighbour or a Peeping Tom. It is, in fact, Amazon’s smart speaker system. Awoken by their conversation, the device misread some words as commands and sent household conversations to a contact list. Before they knew it, an associate became aware of their renovation plans.
Danielle, in an interview with KIRO TV, said she and her husband would joke about these devices listening in.
Their fears were realised when an employee of Danielle’s husband called on the phone. With a hint of urgency in his voice, the employee urged them to “unplug Alexa right now”.
“You’re being hacked,” he warned.
With Alexa decommissioned, the husband went back to speak to the employee who claimed to have received audio files containing domestic conversations. At first, he could not believe his ears.
“'You're sat there talking about hardwood floors'”, Danielle told the station, quoting the employee. “And we said, ’Oh gosh, you really did hear us.’”
Response from Amazon
Amazon responded that future updates will prevent such actions from the speaker.
A spokesperson for the organisation, also speaking to KIRO TV, asserted that Amazon takes the privacy of its users very seriously. Explaining the circumstances which led to the bizarre incident, he told Recode that the device woke up after hearing a word which sounded 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'", the spokesperson explained.
“As unlikely as this string of events is, we are evaluating options to make this case even less likely,” the Recode website quoted him as saying.
Not a unique occurrence
Alexa is not the only smart speaker system to have recorded conversations.
In October of 2017, tech blogger Artem Russakovskii found a bug in his Google Home Mini Speaker. He had taken the device home for a trial run.
"My Google Home Mini was inadvertently spying on me 24/7 due to a hardware flaw," he wrote on his tech blog Android Police.
Russakovskii was greeted by a rude awakening when he looked at his Google account activity webpage. He found it littered with conversations recorded in the privacy of his home. Google told CNN that the flaw was narrowed down to the device’s touchpad and a software update would solve the issue.
Paranoia among some users
While Alexa and the Mini Speaker’s actions may have been accidental, as Amazon and Google claim, they have heightened fears among some users.
As dull as users might find their own personal data, the information rakes in billions for tech giants.
“Your devices snooping on you is nothing new,” says Nighat Dad, who runs Digital Rights Foundation. The foundation is a nonprofit advocacy organisation in Pakistan with a focus on information and communication technologies to support human rights and digital governance.
“There is this saying in our information security community that your smartphone is your own surveillance device. It is not new that technologies can monitor you. It has always existed,” she explains.
Dad believes that major tech companies are involved in data mining. She tells Inside Scandinavian Business that users give up their rights to privacy without even knowing it. User data is then sold off to the highest bidder for the purpose of targeted advertising.
“Why do you think social media platforms are free to us?” she asks rhetorically.
Dad likens the network to a massive mafia. “They are all connected to one another."
Terms and conditions
It is wise to read the terms and conditions of applications before installing them on smart devices, as advised by the founder of On.com, Kevin Deegan. In his blog written for Huffington Post, he points out that most users rarely bother to look at the long list of terms presented to them.
However, access means data, and data is gold for targeted advertising.
Shahzad Ahmad, who is Pakistan country director of Bytes For All, smells something even more sinister at work when it comes to eavesdropping devices. Bytes For All is a human rights organisation that promotes the use of technology for sustainable development and social justice.
Ahmad believes that state actors, such as intelligence agencies, and even non-state actors, eavesdrop on the conversations of people. “It is a threat to your privacy and fundamental freedom,” he explains.
This view was supported by an experiment carried out by a documentary maker, who allowed his mobile phone to be stolen.
In an opinion piece for The Guardian, data consultant and web developer Dylan Curran pointed out that the filmmaker could monitor every moment of the thief’s life. Their meals, work routine and love life were no longer private. Through the app, the documentary maker could watch.
Ahmad continues that if personal conversations, gathered through eavesdropping, are made public, the content can pose a threat.
“People have a certain way of thinking about things. I’m discussing this in the context of freedom of expression and religion. It can extend to sexual orientation or if you belong to a religious or ethnic minority,” he warns.
Elaborating on nations potentially spying on citizens, Ahmad uses the example of Finfisher, an application which is used for targeted digital surveillance.
“They can watch you through your phone camera or your laptop camera, hear your calls and even change passwords.” Ahmad points out that today’s human being is tracked every second of the day by authorities, or by businesses out to make a profit.
“Every action is documented somewhere. They know how many steps you have walked in a day, your amount of sleep and who you have spoken to on a given date.”
People no longer need to look over their shoulders for nosy neighbours or Peeping Toms. The machine watching and hearing their every move occupies a place by the bedside, slips comfortably into the hand and even lulls users into thinking it is irreplaceable.
As The Eagles once famously sang in Hotel California, “We are all just prisoners here; of our own device.” However, many of us might not know it as yet.
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