We've all had that uncomfortable feeling that our electronic assistants are spying on us. Many of us have had instances where Alexa talked without anyone saying the wake word. But the creepiness factor of letting Jeff Bezos into all our homes turned itself up to 11 when we read the story of a Portland family whose private conversations were sent to a friend.
Amazon responded to ZDNet's outreach to explain that the incident was extremely rare, occurred only because of an odd combination of Alexa mis-hearing the wake word, and a "series of unfortunate events," as an Alexa tech support guy told me.
I don't know about you, but I'm not one for playing the odds. I have an Alexa in just about every room, have conversations that are not just personal private, but national security and corporate confidentiality private, and do not want to take any chance that random utterances get plastered to my contact list, especially when I work with companies that are in direct competition with each other.
One option is to simply remove the Alexas from our household, but I'm lazy. I can't imagine turning on a light by hand any more, or pressing keys on a calculator to do math. On the other hand, I also don't want to make calls or have conversations locked inside a cone of silence in each room.
Given that the series of unfortunate events started with Alexa's ability to make phone calls and have access to our contact lists, I went into the app both on the web and in my phone in a fruitless exercise of trying to find the settings to turn off those features.
Seriously? There's no way to turn off those things? As it turned out, there is. But I had to make a call into Amazon to figure it out.
How to turn off the "feature"
There are two ways to turn off the calling features of Alexa. Completely delete your Alexa profile (and set up everything back again!) or call Amazon's tech support.
I called Amazon's Alexa support hotline at 1-877-375-9365. Use that number. Do not just Google "Amazon Alexa Support," because you never know whether or not there's a scammer landing page trying to intercept your searches with fake phone numbers. The better way is to click Amazon's Help link in the menu on Amazon's main page:
Next, click "Need More Help" and then "Contact Us" at the bottom of the help page:
Then, in the "What can we help you with?" section, click "Devices":
You'll be presented with a list of devices (if you have more than one). Click any Alexa device you have. In the following image, I clicked Kitchen. Then, in the select an issue area, choose "Setup or Change Device Settings," ignore the "Did You Know?" and choose Phone or Chat. Don't choose email, because you'll have a problem authenticating that you're you with Amazon. I prefer phone.
I called at 5:09pm on a Saturday and was connected with a helpful agent, Dale, within a minute. Obviously, your mileage may vary.
I told him I wanted to make sure Alexa didn't send recordings of my conversations to my contacts, so I wanted to turn off my contacts and Alexa's calling capability. He knew exactly what I was talking about and asked for some identifying authentication information. Once he had that, he was able to disable calling for my Alexas.
I also went through the same process with my wife's account, just in case, and calling was disabled for her account as well.
Here's how to know it works
So here's how you definitively make sure you're not able to make calls anymore. First, restart or reboot your Alexa app. I feel better with rebooting, so that's what I did. This works for both iOS and Android, but I did it only for my iOS devices.
Launch the Alexa app. You will likely see the message below:
Click Cancel. Whatever you do, don't click Register.
That proves that your Alexa devices are no longer able to send messages to friends. You'll only get that message the first time you launch the Alexa app after you've disabled your calling capability.
Something to watch out for
Even though you got that Register notice on launching the app once, there are two other places you might click that could accidentally turn on the feature. Let's go through both, so you're prepared and don't accidentally turn calling back on.
First, click the conversation icon at the bottom of your screen:
You should see the following setup message:
This will show up every time you click that icon. Be careful not to click Register. Cancel to get out of that screen.
You'll get a similar prompt if you click the Contacts menu item in the app:
This time, you'll see a message like the one shown before, but instead of a Register button, it will say Proceed. Don't click Proceed. Click Cancel instead.
As long as you remain diligent and don't press those icons, you should be just fine.
What Amazon needs to do
By this point, it should be obvious to Amazon's devs that this feature needs to be turned off, or at least be able to be turned off in the app. It should not be necessary to call into tech support or delete the entire device's profile to turn off a calling feature.
Secondly, if that feature is off, there should be an option to "Don't show this message again" when the conversation icon or contacts menu is clicked. In fact, it would be nice to have an option to turn off conversations and contacts completely, so those icons and messages never show up.
TechRepublic: Amazon Alexa: Cheat sheet
I've talked before about how the success of this category and Alexa in particular is dependent completely on how much consumers trust Amazon. Errors do happen, but when it comes to giant cloud-based installations, AI-based assistants, and trust -- well, we've all watched enough science fiction to know that things often end badly.
Amazon (and the other AI assistant vendors) need to show that they consider any possible breach of customer trust a DEFCON 1 level event.
In this instance, instead of reading an article by a ZDNet columnist about how to turn off the accidental calling feature, Amazon should have wholesale disabled this capability for all users, worldwide -- then given users the option to turn it back on if they wanted.
Leaving it enabled with such an open question or rare-but-possible "series of unfortunate events" leaves open the possibility other users might report similar breaches of trust and confidentiality.
If consumers read about two or three of those breaches of trust in a row, the entire Alexa brand will be dead as we all toss our devices into the trash heap of history (or demand refunds from Amazon).
P.S. I will forgive Amazon almost anything, including this relatively rare bug that spies on some people, because they picked up The Expanse when SyFy dropped it. Point definitely to Amazon.
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