Here's how the Alexa spying scandal could become Amazon's worst nightmare

Amazon Echo, the hardware interface for voice assistant Alexa. (Source: Amazon)
  • Amazon has had multiple incidents where the device has seemingly gone rogue and acted in an unexpected way.
  • Placing a speaker that is always on and listening is a big ask for customers who might be concerned about privacy implications.
  • Amazon is asking customers to trust it with Alexa and with its retail business.
  • With events like these, it’s not about what actually happened – it’s about if the public perceives a violation of trust.

An Amazon Echo device recorded a couple having a private conversation and sent it to someone in their contact list.

Here’s what happened, according to Amazon:

“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 customers 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.”

Amazon says this type of thing is an “extremely rare occurrence,” and that the company “takes privacy very seriously,” and is “taking steps to avoid this from happening in the future.”

It wasn’t a hack, it wasn’t malicious, and it wasn’t a bug. It was just extremely unlucky.

The damage, however, has still been done in the court of public opinion.

“I felt invaded,” the victim of circumstance told KIRO-TV. “A total privacy invasion. Immediately I said, ‘I’m never plugging that device in again, because I can’t trust it.'”

Others on social media expressed similar concerns about privacy, with some vowing they will never have another Amazon Echo or that they are immediately unplugging the one they have.^tfw

Many compared it to the incident where Echos would laugh spontaneously.

Indeed, it takes a lot of trust to plug in a speaker that is listening to you all the time – one that you trust is not transmitting your private conversations or storing them in a database hundreds of miles away.

The truth is that it doesn’t matter why the couple’s conversation was transmitted. The truth of the situation only gets you so far. Once customer perception is solidified that the speakers are privacy minefield, it doesn’t matter what safeguards are put in place. The perception always trumps reality.

Amazon trades in trust daily. It’s how it built its enormous e-commerce empire. Online shopping is extremely trust-based, as is its $US120 a year Amazon Prime membership. Customers implicitly trust Amazon will send their items quickly and cheaply, and the company has earned that trust through its reliability.

It’s this trust that convinced people to get these devices in the first place. Amazon knows how to gain customers trust – but in this brave new world of always-on voice assistants, it will have to fight to keep it.

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