Oh, cool. The robot apocalypse is here, only it doesn’t look nearly as cool as in Terminator and it’s somehow more terrifying.
So you probably already know about Alexa, Amazon‘s not-at-all-creepy robot voice assistant lady who’s already been used to nefarious ends by wily parrots. What you might not know is that Amazon has always been adamant that the only people privy to what goes on between you and Alexa – your idle googling, your repeated commands that she play Despacito – are you, and Amazon itself.
If you are snorting with skepticism, by all means, snort away.
A German magazine recently reported, in a stunning investigation, that back in November an Amazon customer who’d requested his own data that Amazon had stored was actually sent hundreds of WAV files and PDF transcriptions of voice commands given to Alexa.
Which was weird, because the guy didn’t own an Alexa device or use the service at all.
It turned out that the guy, who has been given the pseudonym Martin Schneider, had received all the data – 1700 files worth of it – from another customer. One he had no connection to at all.
The magazine reports that Schneider emailed Amazon’s customer service to tell them about the issue, but never heard back. Although he soon found that the download link he’d been sent was no longer working, he’d still saved the files on his computer. It was then that he contacted the magazine, concerned that, considering Amazon’s lack of response to him, they wouldn’t have told the bloke on the recordings either.
Can you guess where this is going?
After gaining access to the files, the magazine began to piece together a picture of the other customer using his personal habits, including that he was in the routine of giving commands while he was in the shower, that he occasionally had a woman in his house, and that he used Alexa while he was out and about as well.
Eventually, using weather queries, public transport inquiries, alarms, and even Spotify commands, the reporters zeroed in on the guy. When they contacted him, he was “audibly shocked“. No, Amazon had not let him know that his entire month of May had accidentally been sent to some random guy.
Within a few days, both Schneider and the unwitting exhibitionist had been contacted by Amazon, who told them that someone in the company had made a “one-time error“.
Amazon has not made it clear exactly how human error caused this insane privacy violation, because of course they haven’t. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go Ron Swanson all of my devices. Can’t be too careful.
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