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.