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The Amazon Alexa Eavesdropping Nightmare Came True
An Amazon user in Germany recently requested data about his personal activities and inadvertently gained access to 1,700 audio recordings of someone he didn’t know.
Germany’s c’t magazine reports that in August the Amazon user—exercising his rights under the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation—requested his own data that Amazon has stored. Two months later, Amazon sent him a downloadable 100Mb zip file.
Some of the files reportedly related to his Amazon searches. But according to the report there were also hundreds of Wav files and a PDF cataloging transcripts of Alexa’s interpretations of voice commands. According to c’t magazine, this was peculiar to this user because he doesn’t own any Alexa devices and had never used the service. He also didn’t recognize the voices in the files.
The user reported the matter to Amazon and asked for information. He reportedly didn’t receive a response, but soon found that the link to the data was dead. However, he had already saved the files, and he shared his experience with c’t magazine out of concern that the person whose privacy had been compromised was not told about the mistake.
C’t magazine listened to many of the files and was able “to piece together a detailed picture of the customer concerned and his personal habits.” It found that he used Alexa in various places, has an Echo at home, and has a Fire device on his TV. They noticed that a woman was around at times. They listened to him in the shower.
We were able to navigate around a complete stranger’s private life without his knowledge, and the immoral, almost voyeuristic nature of what we were doing got our hair standing on end. The alarms, Spotify commands, and public transport inquiries included in the data revealed a lot about the victims’ personal habits, their jobs, and their taste in music. Using these files, it was fairly easy to identify the person involved and his female companion. Weather queries, first names, and even someone’s last name enabled us to quickly zero in on his circle of friends. Public data from Facebook and Twitter rounded out the picture.
Using the information they gathered from the recordings, the magazine contacted the victim of the data leak. He “was audibly shocked,” and confirmed it was him in the recordings and that the outlet had figured out the identity of his girlfriend. He said Amazon did not contact him.
Days later, both the victim and the receiver of the files were called by Amazon to discuss the incident. Both were reportedly called three days after c’t magazine contacted Amazon about the matter. An Amazon representative reportedly told them that one of their staff members had made a one-time error.
When asked for comment on the matter, Amazon sent Gizmodo the same statement it had shared with Reuters. “This was an unfortunate case of human error and an isolated incident. We have resolved the issue with the two customers involved and have taken steps to further improve our processes. We were also in touch on a precautionary basis with the relevant regulatory authorities.”
Amazon did not answer Gizmodo’s questions about how a human error led to this privacy infringement, or whether the company had initially contacted the victim to inform them their sensitive information was shared with a stranger.
The recordings of the victim were from May. That same month, a Portland woman found her Echo had sent a recorded conversation between her and her husband to one of his employees. Amazon said the virtual assistant misinterpreted speech as an order to send the conversation to a contact.