Another Amazon Alexa Privacy Problem

Amazon continues to release more and more of their Alexa Echo units, and if you're like us, you're continuing to add them throughout your homes and offices.

It requires a fair measure of confidence to add a device with a microphone and possibly camera into every intimate part of your house.

But in addition to these obvious potential and sometimes actual problems with Alexa devices, there’s another surprising privacy compromise that we’ve discovered, too.

I was fast asleep a couple of mornings ago, when all of a sudden, the Amazon Echo Dot unit in my bedroom started making a ringing noise, and said “You have a call from (some unrecognizable name)”.  It kept ringing, and a few seconds later, helpfully restated, “(some unrecognizable name) is calling you”.

This surprised me, because I’d never been called on my Alexa units by people I didn’t know before.  I ignored it, and after some more ringing, it mercifully stopped.  Of course – yes, you guessed it – just as I was going back to sleep again, the person called a second time.  Eventually, the caller gave up, and I in turn found myself giving up on the hope of a full night’s sleep.

Needless to say, I was simultaneously curious about what/who/how someone was calling me, and also motivated to find a way to stop such unwelcome interruptions occurring.

So I first did some research on my own.  As best I could determine, I’d not received any regular land-line calls or Skype calls or cellular calls at about the same time that Alexa might have been trying to helpfully tell me about (as it sometimes does), just this mysterious Alexa call.  No-one contacted me via other methods subsequently and said they’d also tried to get me through Alexa.  And I truly completely could not either recognize nor understand any part of the name of the caller Alexa was announcing.

So I did the obvious thing, and asked Alexa, “Who called me”.  Alexa didn’t recognize the command.  I optimistically tried a few variations on that request, none of which Alexa recognized.

I went to the Alexa app on my phone, which is where/how most of the Alexa functionality is controlled (an ever-present pinprick of conceit by Amazon’s developers, refusing to recognize that many of us prefer to use a regular computer, screen and keyboard, rather than our tiny phone).  There were various options that purported to give a list of “Drop-Ins” and communication events, but none showed anything happening that morning.  I also tried to find what or how it was that someone could call me, through Alexa and end up trying to reach me on the Echo unit in my bedroom.  There was no obvious explanation.

So I called Amazon support.  After a grueling 62 minute phone conversation, I gave up, having discovered, to my astonishment and concern, that there was apparently no way that anyone at Amazon was able to find out who it was who called me.  And this was not just because I was dealing with a junior level support rep.  I’d been bumped up to a woman (Melissa, in their Puerto Rico call center) who grandly described herself as “the last point of contact on the leadership team”.  There was no-one, anywhere in Amazon, more senior than her who would or could talk to me or help address my concern, and she was so senior that she refused my request to speak to an American representative.

As senior as she was, she utterly failed to answer my questions or to solve the underlying problems.

Who Called Me?

So, pause and think for a moment at the extraordinary discontinuity as between Alexa and all other communication systems.

  • If someone calls you on your regular phone, your caller ID shows you whatever details are disclosed, and depending on the type of landline phone service you have, you might have additional online call records too, and possibly even a call back feature
  • If someone calls you on your cell phone, you’ve a record of that call in your account details and on your phone
  • If someone tries to reach you through Skype or any other messaging app, of course there’s a record of who it was who tried to reach you

But, if someone somehow wakes you up in your bedroom, via your private/personal Echo unit, Amazon is unable to tell you who did it or how to reach back to the caller.

It seems impossible to believe in this day of everything being recorded and added to enormous computer databases, that Amazon doesn’t know exactly who called me, the IP address the call originated from, their account details, and more about the caller in general than the caller’s own mother knows.  But they’re refusing to tell me anything at all.

And wait, that’s just the first of several concerning unknowns.

How Did Someone Get My Alexa Contact Details?

The next awkward unknown is how did this person find my number and call me?

Amazon’s official answer is the caller must be one of my “Alexa contacts”, and Melissa suggested I look through my Alexa contacts to find the name of the person who called.  I lost count of the number of times, during the 62 minutes, that Melissa and Jason before her showed themselves unable to understand that the words Alexa said to pronounce the name of the entity calling me were utterly unrecognizable and unlike any words in any of the range of languages I’m familiar with.  How would I recognize the name of this person when I had no idea what Alexa said?

However, the suggestion to check through my Alexa contacts introduced an interesting discovery.  My “Alexa contacts” were actually my entire phone contact list.  Not just people I wished to allow to contact me via Alexa, not just other people known to me with Alexa units, but everyone I’d ever added to the contact directory on my cell phone.  This is some hundreds of entries long, ranging from the name of the local plumber, to my dog’s vet, former girlfriends now unlikely to be calling me and who should probably sadly be deleted, to the names of hotels in foreign countries, and so on.  Yours is probably the same.

I don’t remember allowing Alexa to access this, but I’m sure that at some point when installing Alexa, two and a half years ago, there was one of those “impossible to refuse” requests to give Alexa access to my phone directory.  By “impossible to refuse” I mean that if you refused to grant Alexa access, the entire system would not work, meaning that in reality, you have no choice but to “voluntarily agree”.

But I never realized that giving Alexa access to my phone directory meant that anyone in my phone directory could now call to me on my Alexa unit.  I thought the reason Alexa wanted to access my phone contacts was to help me place calls, not to force me to accept unwanted interruptions from people at all hours of the day and night.  Even the most simple of old fashioned phone systems has the ability to have an unlisted phone number, but super-sophisticated Alexa seems to lack that.

I am unpersuaded that the person who called me is on my contact list, because none of the names on the contact list is sufficiently unrecognizable as to possibly be the person who Alexa said was calling.  Indeed, the name was so strange that it almost seemed like the caller deliberately created a random name just by hitting characters at random on the keyboard – “adf gsdrion” or something like that.

How to Stop People Calling My Alexa Units?

Call me old-fashioned, but I’ve absolutely no wish to have people calling me on my Alexa Echo units.  Like most people, I already have a bewildering number of different ways I can be reached.  Various landline and mobile numbers.  All sorts of messaging apps.  Email.  And so on.

So, not unreasonably, I asked Melissa how to “go invisible” and ban all calls, no matter who they come from.  This took some time for her to figure out, and included the priceless comment from her that never, in her entire experience, had anyone ever complained and asked to be made uncontactable before.

Using the line “You’re the only person who ever….” is of course one of the oldest tricks in any customer support agent’s book, and you should never fall for it.  So, no, she didn’t make me feel guilty when she said that, my response was that she obviously was not as experienced or senior as she claimed to be if she’d never had anyone complain about this before!

Eventually she came up with a possible solution.  But in a typical “gotcha” fashion, to stop unknown people all around the world from reaching out to me while I’m sleeping in bed, I also have to turn off the in-house intercom feature (the “Drop In”) feature, too.  The Drop In feature, which also can be used as a room monitor, is very useful – particularly if my daughter, who sleeps two floors below me – wishes to call me in the middle of the night.

So, an all-or-nothing approach means I have to allow anonymous strangers, throughout the galaxy, to contact me if I want to be able to use the local intercom feature as well.  That’s an unnecessary linkage that seems designed to force Alexa users to open their units up to accepting all calls from everyone (or, perhaps, from “only” the people in one’s phone directory).

An Ironic Postscript

The day before this happened, my good friend Jerry gave me his Echo unit.  “Here, David, take this thing from me.  My wife and son refuse to have it in the house any more.”  They were worried about the privacy compromises inherent within it.

I gratefully accepted another Echo – there are still a few nooks and crannies in my house not yet filled with Echo units – but tried to talk him into keeping it, arguing that the privacy issues were not really a concern, unlikely to be a problem, and an acceptable compromise for all Alexa’s wonderful conveniences.

And then, the next morning, I get woken by this call, and the only private thing about it is that Amazon appears unable to tell me who it was that called me, and/or how to prevent future unwanted calls.  Hey, Jerry, would you like your Echo unit back?   And some extra ones, too?

Summary

This experience brings me back to a constant refrain and conclusion that appears in many of our Alexa articles.  Although first introduced way back in November 2014, Amazon’s Alexa service continues to show itself to be incomplete and un-thought out, being rushed to market without having been fully user-tested and developed.

Whether it is the limited disappointing use of the screen on their Echo Show devices (see our Echo Show review for commentary on that), other frustrations such as not being able to set an alarm on one Echo unit and have it ring on other or all units, or these privacy concerns, Amazon’s rush-to-market is resulting in poorly thought through and frustratingly limited functionality.

Yes, I still like my Alexa Echo units, and yes, I still hope that Amazon will continue to develop and improve the Alexa service.  Yes, you should probably still get some too.  But be aware that they’re not as good or capable as they should be, and be prepared to accept mystery calls that Amazon can’t/won’t tell you anything about or help you prevent.

7 thoughts on “Another Amazon Alexa Privacy Problem”

  1. David, Puerto RIco is part of the United States of America, and a person working for Amazon there is probably either a US citizen or green card holder.

    1. Hi, Rick, that’s a complicated status point. If they can’t vote for Congress/Senate or President, they’re in some sort of grey zone, and with an average income 1/3rd that of the US, they are clearly another low-cost call center location for Amazon and others.

      I hate to say it, but the observed reality consistently has been, at least in my experience and that of others I know, that American based call center reps generally seem to be much more on the ball and “with it” and capable than off-shore reps. My understanding was that most companies have an operating standard that if you request to speak to an American, the agent is required to transfer you.

      I gave Melissa her fair and full chance (remember the call was 62 minutes) to fix my problem, but when she said she couldn’t and that there was no-one else I could speak to, at that point, asking to speak to an American rep seemed like an obvious next step. Unfortunately, she refused to transfer me.

      But the entire question of PR’s status is a side issue, and shouldn’t be focused on to the exclusion of the big underlying point I’m trying to make. The only relevance was that she should have transferred me to someone else when requested.

      And the actual point of the article? People I don’t know can call me in the middle of the night through my Echo unit, and Amazon can’t/won’t tell me who they are or how to stop them. That’s the point I encourage you to consider and comment on. 🙂

  2. Can you not set do not disturb from say midnight to 7am? And have daughter call your cell if needed during those hours? Of course cell can allow only selected call during do no disturb hours.

    1. Hi, Mike

      That is such a cumbersome workaround – assuming it to be possible at all, because Amazon can’t even tell me how it was the person ended up calling me via my Echo Dot. It still leaves me open to receiving calls from unknown people on my Echo units at other times of the day, and then requires me to leave my cell phone on and create a DND exception, and so on.

      Much simpler – in theory – is simply to not accept any calls from anyone on the Echo Dot. That’s what I want, but it appears that setting is not possible.

      Welcome to our wonderful 21st century “connected world”. Whether we wish to be, or not!

  3. Hi David,

    I want to respond to two points you have made.

    If PR is a low paid cost center for call centers, then your point is well taken. Pay people a decent wage and you get better qualified people to do the job.
    Folks living in PR cannot vote for federal offices. If you (naturized citizen) or I (natural born citizen) lived there, we couldn’t vote for federal office either. That has nothing to do with whether they are citizens or whether PR is part of the US It is, it’s not a state, and federdal office holders are received for residents of states. Ask anyone in DC; they have a similiar outrage here.

  4. I’m with your good friend Jerry on this one. Wouldn’t have one of these units in my house, let alone in my bedroom. To me, that’s the easiest way to avoid having someone call me on it!

    1. Hi, Stewart

      I’ve self-locked myself into the deadly embrace of the convenience offered by the units. The Echo unit is my alarm clock, my radio, my music player, and the controller for the various lights in my bedroom and elsewhere. It is also an intercom to the rest of the house.

      So, for me, it isn’t really easy to just unplug the Echo.

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