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Family's Private Conversation Leaked by Their Amazon Alexa

A Portland’s family's Amazon Alexa recently recorded a private conversation and sent the audio to a random contact in Seattle.

According to Danielle, who only wanted to use her first name, an employee of her husband called to tell them he thought they were being hacked because he received audio files of their conversation. The employee explained that he was able to hear Danielle and her husband discussing hardwood floors. He sent them files of the recording and they were confirmed to be their actual conversation.

"I felt invaded," Danielle told her local radio station, KIRO 7.  "A total privacy invasion. I’ll never be plugging that device in again because I can't trust it.'"

In a statement to the radio station, the company said, "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."

Apparently, what occurred is that one of Amazon’s Echo devices had recorded a conversation and emailed recordings without the family's permission. The recipient was in their address book.

With a long background in building high-tech products, I’ve learned one thing. If something can go wrong, it usually will. Forget all the promises from a company’s PR department—or even the CEO—that their product is foolproof, safe, and secure. They can’t possibly know all of the things that can go wrong, particularly when the products are so complex.  Even the engineers can’t make such assurances.

Somewhere deep in an organization, one engineer can make a mistake that causes unintended consequences. Or when designing a product, there might not he sufficient time to consider the possible ways their product might fail or be abused. Exhibit A is Facebook, a company that never anticipated how its product could be hijacked over and over again.

That’s why we cautioned you last July about this very danger from smart speakers, such as the Amazon Echo or Google Home. Yes, if something can go wrong it definitely will. Assurances mean nothing in the world of technology. And "we take this very seriously" is a highly overused phrase meaning "we messed up," to put it politely.