Amazon’s Alexa hears anchorman report story, puts in orders for dollhouses
There is a downside to smart speakers like the Amazon Echo and the Google Home. Since they are made to respond to the spoken word, some times the devices don’t take into consideration the source of those words. For example, the other day a 6-year old girl from Dallas named Brooke Neitzel ordered a $162 dollhouse and four pounds of cookies from Alexa by using the Amazon Echo Dot that her parents received for the holidays.
Brooke’s order became known when her parents received an email confirmation. But the best was yet to come. The CW6 television station in San Diego, known as CW6, some how got wind of the story. Anchors Jim Patton and Lynda Martin were talking on the morning news about the dollhouse and four pounds of cookies ordered by Brooke Neitzel. Patton said, “I love the little girl, saying ‘Alexa order me a dollhouse.” Perhaps that was not the best way to phrase that statement.
As soon as the words left Patton’s lips, Echo devices all over San Diego started ordering dollhouses. There are a couple of reasons why that happened. One, as anyone who owns an Echo device knows, Alexa is activated by saying “Alexa,” followed by the task you want her to do. Secondly, these smart speakers do not differentiate between voices. Put it all together, and Jim Patton told Amazon Echo units near television sets tuned to CW6 to “order me a dollhouse.” Alexa connects to Amazon’s online store, and while writing this story and reading it back, yours truly almost ordered a dollhouse using Amazon Prime.
Stephen Cobb, senior security researcher for ESET North America, says eventually these devices will be able to tell voices apart. But for now, he notes that the FTC is investigating voice-controlled technology for safety reasons.
By the way, there are safeguards that can be taken. Using the Alexa app, voice purchasing can be disabled, or a confirmation code could be set up. That code would have to be spoken before an order placed through Alexa is confirmed. Even with this protection, if an accidental order gets through, Amazon says that it can be returned for free.