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Dangers of Alexa and Google Product Malfunctions

Laura Thomas Aug. 13, 2018

Flaws in Amazon Echo and Google Home devices have led to conversations being recorded that were not intended to be. This has even led to some conversations being unintentionally sent to other people. These product malfunctions have raised many questions: are these devices recording all the time? What policies are in place to prevent misuse of voice data? What measures are being made to ensure that these malfunctions don’t occur in the future?

Malfunction Incidents

It was reported in May of this year that a husband and wife from Portland, Oregon experienced a malfunction with their Amazon home assistant device, Alexa. The device recorded a conversation between the couple and sent it to the husband’s employee located in Seattle.

Amazon admitted to the family that there was a vulnerability in Alexa’s software that led to the incident. An Amazon spokesperson said it was a very unlikely string of events that caused the recording malfunction. Although this was an “extremely rare occurrence”, the spokesperson said it’s not clear exactly how many Alexa devices contain this vulnerability.

Google Home devices, which have similar functionality and capabilities, have also had instances of glitches in recording conversations. One product reviewer reported that his device was recording everything he said, rather than only when activated. This was discovered after the reviewer checked his personal activity page on Google’s website. Files had been uploaded to Google’s server from the device without his knowledge.

Another Google Home user stated their device registered the code to their back-door entry system while chatting with a friend. A written transcript of the conversation read, “if you ever get booked down to my house for some reason the key safe for the back door is 0783”.

Theories on The Glitches

As is apparent in the last example, the safety of users is of upmost concern. If these devices are recording conversations that were not authorized for recording, how safe are they to have in homes?

While professionals and spokespeople have given countless statements declaring the efforts being made to ensure these issues do not persist, many are also convinced that these products were designed for this type of surveillance functionality in the first place. Two senators have demanded Amazon CEO, Jeff Bezos answer a few questions about the devices. The questions were in regard to how many complaints there have been, reasons Amazon might use the voice data being captured, and policies that are in place to prevent misuse of voice data. Currently, answers have not yet been released to these questions.

Daily Mail Online published an article referencing a report created by Santa Monica, California based advocacy group, Consumer Watchdog. It states that patents show the devices’ possible use as surveillance equipment, as the devices can be “awake” even when users are not aware they are. A “wakeword”, such as “Alexa” or “Google” is supposed to awaken the device for use. However, it’s theorized that these “product malfunctions” are actually just instances of the products being used how they were actually meant to be.

Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy and Technology Project Director, John Simpson said while the devices are useful, they also collect information on you and your family for consumer use. Think if you were discussing a new kitchen appliance and you suddenly started receiving advertisements and coupons for the appliance you were just talking about.

Various spokespeople from Amazon have tried to combat these claims. One responded to the Consumer Watchdog report by saying, “we take privacy seriously and have built multiple layers of privacy into Echo devices. We do not use customer voice recordings for targeted advertising.

Whatever the truth may be, the numbers continue to climb in sales of these electronics. Roughly half of U.S. adults use digital voice assistants and about 8 percent use stand-alone devices, such as the Amazon Echo and Google Home. With the growing sales, it can be assumed that the questions surrounding the use of these devices will grow as well.

Biesterveld and Crook, LLC will continue to follow this topic as additional details emerge in various headlines.