Amazon Echo inadvertently sent conversation to family’s contact

A Portland family was surprised to learn that their Amazon Echo inadvertently sent a recording of their conversation to one of their phone’s contacts through Alexa’s calling and messaging feature. Through a string of unlikely events, the Echo interpreted a background conversation as a request to send a message, resulting in what is essentially the modern equivalent of a “butt dial.”

Amazon examined the logs of the Portland family’s Echo and determined the following happened:

Echo woke up due to a word in background conversation sounding 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 customer’s contact list. Alexa then asked out loud, “[contact name], right?” Alexa then interpreted background conversation as “right”. As unlikely as this string of events is, we are evaluating options to make this case even less likely.

Any Echo device owner will tell you that occasional false wake-ups happen. Those false wake-ups rarely trigger an action, since they have to also be followed by a false request that sounds like something Alexa can perform. In this incident, the false wake-up was followed by a false request, then a false response, and then finally a false confirmation, all while the Echo was speaking back to the family without anyone noticing.

While this series of events is very unlikely, the laws of probability say, given enough time, it’s bound to happen. One takeaway for Echo owners should be to try to not leave your speakers set to a very low volume that is inaudible. The Echo in this incident spoke back to the family twice without being heard. Had they heard the Echo’s responses, this incident could have probably been avoided.

If you’re worried about your Echo device interpreting background conversations as requests without you noticing, one tip is to create an Alexa Routine that resets the device’s volume to an audible level every morning. This way, if someone lowered the volume the previous night, perhaps to avoid waking someone up, the volume will always be audible in the morning. Such a routine can be created in the Alexa app by setting a time when the routine will run every day and adding a volume change as the only action.

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14 comments
  1. Jim Carter says:

    This is one of those situations where the blame falls on the user and not the equipment. Expectations that man made devices can achieve perfection are ludicrous. Accidents occurs every day all over the world with every product ever made. For some unknown reason, only tech products like these generate an uproar.

    • Last I knew, “set volume to 6” was not an allowed command, because only smart home device commands can be used.

      • Erin says:

        I’ve only had Echo devices since last Prime Day, but “Set volume to 6 (or any number from 1-10) has always worked for me.

        • Richard H. McCullough says:

          Yes, “set volume to 6” is an allowed Alexa command, but it is not an allowed Alexa Routine command.

          • Erin says:

            When you go into Routines you now have the ability to set the Echo device volume. It shows up as a slider, but once you’ve selected a volume, it displays the way that the picture in the article shows.

  2. Erin says:

    This is a really good suggestion. Every one in awhile, even though I have an Echo in my living room, a Dot in another room will respond instead when I’m trying to talk to Alexa. If I were to have music playing or the TV on at the time this occurs, I’d likely not hear the Dot in another room taking the command and responding. Especially if the master bedroom Dot responded, because its volume is generally set far lower than all the others in my house because I tend to use it early in the morning or late at night when the house is quiet.

  3. Chris says:

    …resulting in what is essentially the modern equivalent of a “butt dial.”

    Thanks for putting this event in its proper perspective. I get that new technology is scary for some people, but so many media outlets seem intent on feeding in to peoples paranoia and hysteria.

  4. Richard H. McCullough says:

    Chris,
    Thanks for the update on this new capability of Alexa Routines. It gives me some hope that Routines may eventually allow any Alexa command.

  5. Wrecks says:

    Since the Echo runs the Fire operating system, is it possible to sideload apps on it?

  6. Scott says:

    Why? What app could you possibly want to sideload?

  7. Keith says:

    People can call me naieve but I think this was really just an accident.
    However if Amazon REALLY takes privacy “VERY seriously” they’d discontinue the drop-in feature until they’re 100% sure this won’t happen again.
    It used to happen all the time with landlines, baby monitors etc. But, this huge corporation has close ties to the Pentagon and has a major profit motive to collect & store data. To say they need to be held to a higher standard is a gross understatement.

  8. Tampa8 says:

    I’d like to add, while I never envisioned this situation happening, it is yet another reason I refuse to allow Alexa access to my contact list while they refuse to let us pick which contacts can be used. Allowing family option only works for receiving not sending so this could happen even if that option is picked. I agree with AFTV this is a butt dial (good description!). But imagine if you happen to be talking about a contact you didn’t want in the list of Alexa but were forced to and you were talking not in a good way and they were able to hear you. I feel like I am missing out on the calling feature of Alexa but this is a reminder till the Contact list situation is changed I will keep that option turned off.
    A suggestion was made to use the contact list of tablet etc now that they can be in the calling list. You could have that list be only those you want to be able to call and be called by.
    That is a very good suggestion but in my case I use that contact list from my Tablet so it has my complete list. It is an option but the better option is for Amazon to allow us to upload only those contacts we want, add and delete as desired.

    • cheryl jones says:

      so agree with you tampa8 should just be able to put the contacts in alexa app. I am worried that amazon is trying so hard to just push stuff out that quality is sinking. The reminders that many of us waited a couple of years for are still useless. The whole calling thing is a mess. I know a lot of people here are more tech savvy than the average person so may not be as noticeable but it is kind of hard to get around the app and try to do stuff. Not intuitive.

      On a positive note–i had set up the echo calling through the tablet for a neighbor that is old and using a wheelchair/walker combo. she couldn’t find her phone and called me on the alexa. I had also set up the find my phone on alexa for her so alexa made it ring and got it from behind the chair.

  9. Len Mullen says:

    I’d like to hear the recording. Hard to believe this could happen by accident. Maybe some horseplay going on…

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