Was the Alexa Butt Dial a Big Deal? Steps You Can Take if You Are Concerned.
Voice assistants alarmists are out in force after last week’s acknowledgement that Alexa inadvertently sent a recorded conversation to a contact of an Echo smart speaker owner. Whether this is a big deal or not will depend on how consumers react in the coming months. No one wants Amazon or any other organization listening in on their private household conversations. But, this incident isn’t a case of active listening by a smart speaker based voice assistant. It sounds like a random anomaly and the biggest surprise might be that it hasn’t happened before.
In case you missed the story, a couple in Portland, Oregon was having a conversation and Alexa on their smart speaker misinterpreted a portion of the conversation to be an instruction to send a voice message to one of their contacts. The headline first reported by KIRO 7 in Western Washington state said, “Woman says her Amazon device recorded private conversation, sent it out to a random contact.” Of course, the “random contact” wasn’t really that random. It was someone in their smartphone contact list that they had synched with their Amazon Alexa app.
After the woman and her husband confirmed the recording of their conversation was authentic, they contacted Amazon to notify the company about the incident. Amazon responded to questions from KIRO 7 by saying:
“We investigated what happened and determined this was an extremely rare occurrence. We are taking steps to avoid this from happening in the future…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.”
This is a lot more transparency than is typical for Amazon which is evidence that they are taking the complaint seriously.
Alexa’s First Butt Dial
Consumers world-wide are familiar with this phenomenon on smartphones. It’s called the butt dial. Your phone is in your pocked and you sit down while the screen is still active and it interprets the movement as a touch to make a call. The recipient sometimes answers the call only to hear muffled talking or other noises around the caller. An even more common scenario is that a voicemail answers and the recipient is treated to five minutes of muffled noise as a recording. In this case, it wasn’t a call, so technically it was a butt voice text or maybe we should just call it an inadvertent text.
How could this happen if Alexa did ask for confirmation at least twice in the interaction? How come the device owners didn’t hear the Alexa queries seeking confirmation?
If you have ever used an Amazon Echo and turned the volume down to one of the lowest settings, this will seem very plausible. Alexa is nearly inaudible if you are on the other side of the room. On the other hand, Alexa’s microphones work the same in picking up speaker requests no matter what the volume. It is very likely that Alexa’s volume was low and the device owners didn’t hear the confirmation request because they were talking and not adjacent to the device.
Another good assumption is that Alexa’s settings were permissive in terms of speech interpretation. You can tune speech models based on confidence levels that what was heard was correct. If you allow lower confidence levels, there is a higher likelihood of speech being interpreted incorrectly. These are a type of failure often referred to as a false positive. Of course, changing this tuning to be less permissive can result in the voice assistant asking for more frequent clarifications of what was said or missing requests altogether. This situation is often exacerbated when the speaker has an accent.
What Has to Be in Place for This to Happen
For a error of this nature to take place, three conditions must be present. There must be a smart speaker in proximity to the speakers. The device owner would have to proactively setup Alexa’s calling and messaging feature including synchronizing with their contact list. Alexa would have interpret a user utterance as a contact name and that person would also have to have an Echo with calling and messaging enabled. And, the speakers would have to ignore or not hear the audible Alexa confirmations.
There are over 45 million smart speakers in circulation worldwide and Amazon is believed to have sold over 30 million of them. A Voicebot survey in January 2018 found that about 41% of smart speaker owners in the U.S. had tried calling with Alexa and 34% had tried messaging. This suggests that over 12 million devices and nearly 20 million consumers had the first two conditions in place in terms of smart speaker ownership and the messaging feature enabled.
These are large numbers that provide ample opportunity for this type of inadvertent Alexa butt-dial to occur. Again, the bigger surprise might be that it hasn’t happened before.
What You Can Do if Concerned
You can take a few steps if you are concerned that this might happen to you and would like to avoid potential embarrassment.
- You can unplug your devices. No power, means no Alexa service and no risk of listening, recording or sending messages.
- You can activate the mute button on your Amazon Echo devices. The mute button on Echo devices is a physical switch that prevents the microphones from recording. When you press the button, you will see a red ring on the device showing that mute is active.
- You can avoid enabling the calling and messaging feature if you have not already set it up (if you have not activated this feature, it won’t have a method to send these messages).
- You can reach out to Amazon to disable calling and messaging. Yes, you have to call Amazon to get this done. It was always strange that you could activate this feature in the app, but could not deactivate it. This requires a phone call still and should be a high priority for Amazon to put in the control of users.
- You can review your messaging history in the Alexa app to see what messaging you have sent and determine if any were sent inadvertently.
- You can review your log history in the Alexa app to see what Alexa heard you say and recordings of conversation fragments that Alexa could not interpret but initially thought you had made a request. Go into your Alexa App, select the hamburger menu in the upper left, select Settings and scroll down to History. Look for entries that says “Text not available. Click to hear recording,” or “unknown,” to listen to recorded fragments of speech.
So, should you take the drastic step to remove smart speakers from your home or disable the calling and messaging features? That is a personal choice and is based on your tolerance for privacy risk. Very few people deactivate tracking by their mobile phone apps so I suspect they will follow a similar trend with smart speakers. When faced with a tradeoff between privacy risk and convenience, consumers regularly choose convenience. Given the low likelihood of this occurring and the existing consumer track record, I assume this incident will be widely discussed but few device users will change their behaviors or settings.