Tuesday, May 29, 2018 by Jayson Veley
In yet another example of how technology can at times work against our best interests, a family in Portland felt compelled to contact Amazon recently after a private conversation was recorded by the voice-controlled smart speaker “Alexa” and subsequently sent out to a random person living in Seattle.
“My husband and I would joke and say I’d bet these devices are listening to what we’re saying,” explained Danielle, who did not want her last name disclosed. She went on to describe an alarming phone call that she received from one of her husband’s employees in Seattle, who told her to “unplug your Alexa devices right now” because “you’re being hacked.”
“We unplugged all of them and he proceeded to tell us he had received audio files of recordings from inside our house,” Danielle 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 said that she felt that her privacy had been invaded, and that she’s no longer going to be using the Amazon Alexa device because she simply can’t trust it any more. (Related: Amazon has quietly decided to start photographing your home each time they make a delivery.)
When the local news station KIRO 7 reached out to Amazon for a response, the e-commerce giant issued the following statement: “Amazon takes privacy very seriously. We investigated what happened and determined this was an extremely rare occurrence. We are taking steps to avoid this from happening in the future.” (Related: A new Amazon patent admits that it will listen in real-time for “trigger words” that could get you arrested and imprisoned.)
Truthfully, stories similar to this one about the Amazon Alexa listening in on private conversations aren’t that rare; as a matter of fact, they seem to be becoming increasingly common. Worse still, these recorded conversations could potentially end up in the wrong hands.
Last June, a security expert issued a dire warning to users of electronic assistants like the Amazon Alexa and the Google Echo, explaining that these devices could be hacked by criminals and used to steal important and personal information.
According to cybersecurity expert Dr. Jason Nurse, even though the electronic assistant devices put out by Amazon all have an “activation” word (“hey Alexa,” for example), hackers could potentially find a way to make it so that these devices are listening in on your private conversations around the clock. Once that is accomplished, all it would take is a quick sentence or two about your banking information – perhaps as you talk on the phone with your financial advisor, for example – and the hacker could do a tremendous amount of damage to your livelihood and peace of mind.
In order to test if a security breach like this was truly possible, a team of researchers at the security firm Checkmarx began fiddling with the Amazon Alexa to see how easy it would be for a hacker to hack in. After just a few clever manipulations, they were able to achieve their goal, thus proving that the warning made by Dr. Jason Nurse last June is entirely legitimate.
It would be wrong to say that devices like the Amazon Alexa and similar electronic assistants are entirely bad in nature. Indeed, they do make life much more convenient and come with a number of neat features. However, if the future is going to include advanced technology like this, then companies like Amazon are going to have to work harder than ever to ensure that the privacy and safety of their customers is not compromised. Read PrivacyWatch.news for more coverage.