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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Dan Moren

The story behind the Echo eavesdropping story

The story of an Amazon Echo sending a private conversation to a woman’s contacts has been making the rounds since it showed up in a local news story earlier this week.

Amazon’s statement on the matter says that this was a case of a false positive phrase triggering an Echo feature that lets you send voice messages to your contacts. (iOS has a similar feature built in to Messages, albeit not voice activated.) Usually, this requires a few steps worth of confirmation, which again, could be falsely triggered by overhearing a conversation. It’s extremely unlikely, but given the number of requests and number of devices out there, even a one-in-a-million incident is going to happen, you know, one in a million times.

What I suspect happened, as some other sites have speculated, is that the confirmation query was issued on a device that wasn’t in the room the people were in. (Or the volume was down on the responding device.)

The reason I believe this is the case is because my apartment, which is fairly small, has two Echo devices: one in the kitchen, one in the office. The living room is between these two, with doorways to both. The end result? Both Echos can hear you from pretty much anywhere in the house.

And frequently the wrong Echo responds. I’ve had the one in the office respond when I’m standing in the kitchen. I’ve had timers meant for one get triggered on the other. Sometimes one device seems to be stuck and not listening, and the other picks up the slack a little too enthusiastically.

Amazon badly needs to improve the algorithm for figuring out which Echo you’re talking to, and maybe this is the impetus they need. It’s not an easy problem: Apple has a similar issue with the HomePod, and it’s generally ended up with it intercepting any “Hey Siri” query unless you’re, say, using your unlocked phone.

The other point, as John Gruber makes, is that disabling Alexa’s messaging and calling features requires the asinine step of calling Amazon, unless you have FreeTime—the parental restrictions mode—enabled. That’s absolutely ridiculous: you should be able to disable it from the app regardless. I’m hopeful that change will be imminent as a result of this.

It may also need to improve the confirmation system. Perhaps the Echo should make sure to respond at an audible volume to queries it thinks it hears, despite the volume setting. (Or that should be an option, if you’re concerned about it.)

Some of these are problems common to all voice assistants. I’ve had Siri mishear things as wake cues and transcribe a whole bunch of a conversation, but to be fair, it’s often more gibberish-y thanks to the reliability of speech-to-text. And it certainly isn’t about to send audio of my conversation to anyone.

This is tech that needs to be refined, for sure. But I also think that assuming these devices are responsibly developed, they aren’t inherently privacy risks.

Different users are going to have different levels of comfort with the tech they let into their homes and lives. For consumers who just don’t like the idea of microphones in their house, well, the Echo or the Google Home or the HomePod is probably not the device for them.

But breathlessly reporting incidents like this does us all a disservice by providing clickbait headlines that don’t tell the whole story.

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[Dan Moren is a tech writer, novelist, podcaster, and the Official Dan of Six Colors. You can email him at dan@sixcolors.com or find him on Twitter at @dmoren.]