Not Only Can Alexa Eavesdrop — She Can Also Testify Against You

When it was revealed last month that a team of Amazon workers were tasked with listening to and reviewing Echo customers’ recordings—including those that customers never intended to record—the news sparked a flurry of criticism and concern regarding what this meant for the average consumer’s privacy.

At the same time, many were left unsurprised. Previous incidents, such as when an Amazon customer in Germany accidentally received someone else’s private Alexa recordings last year, have shown not only that the devices can record when least expected (such as when the user is in the shower, or having a private conversation) but also that these recordings can end up in unexpected hands.

This reality can leave users feeling that the device that helps them control their schedule, their music and even their home appliances isn’t completely within their control. In fact, the Echo can even be used against its owner—and may have the potential to send some users to prison.

As explained by Oxygen Forensics COO Lee Reiber in an interview with Forensic Magazine, when you live with an Alexa device, “it’s almost like your room is bugged.” Of course the “almost” is that Alexa isn’t necessarily always recording, but that doesn’t mean it only records when it’s supposed to either.

“We have a sample Alexa (…) that I utilize to do research on, and there is a lot of information on there. And I found several (recordings) that are specifically marked by Amazon as an error,” said Reiber, who has firsthand experience using Oxygen’s digital forensic tools to extract data from Echo devices. “I’m sitting there in my kitchen and I am talking to my wife, and it’s recording that information.”

Echo devices are meant to record what the user says to it after using a “wake word”—either “Echo,” “Amazon,” “computer” or the classic “Alexa,” depending on what the user prefers. The catch is that Alexa, which always has its microphone on listening for that word, has a habit of mishearing other words or sounds as its wake word, causing it to activate and record the voices or noises that follow.

I’ve noticed this with my own Echo Dot device, which sometimes lights up blue on its own, or startles me with a robotic “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that” when I never said anything to begin with. Reiber also said those kitchen conversations with his wife were recorded without permission from a wake word, and plenty of other users have reported similar experiences with accidentally waking up their all-hearing assistant.

As Reiber explained, Amazon typically marks unintentional recordings as an error, and in forensic tools like Oxygen’s extractor, they show up marked as discarded items, similar to files someone has deleted from their phone or computer but are still there in the device’s memory. And like these unseen “deleted” files that any skilled digital examiner can recover and view, those accidental recordings are still available to investigators in full—and have the potential to become valuable forensic evidence in a case.

“Because they are already recording, any of these types of IoT (internet of things) devices can be tremendous, because again, if it’s still listening, it could record, and the quality is fantastic,” said Reiber, who also has a law enforcement background. “It’s just a great recording of the person who’s actually speaking. So, someone could say, ‘Well, it wasn’t me, it wasn’t me talking.’ Well, no, it is, it’s an exact recording of your voice.”

Read More