Glider from the game of Life, rising from the left




Topic: #false-positives

The Amazon Echo Samples Household Activity


Amazon is now claiming that the mishap reported here, in which an Echo recorded a random chunk of household conversation and e-mailed it to a third party, resulted from a cascade of four misinterpretations of elements of the conversation: Echo misheard something as a wake word, something else as a "send message" request, something else again as the recipient's name, and yet another thing as a confirmation.

“Amazon Explains How Alexa Recorded a Private Conversation and Sent It to Another User”
Tom Warren, The Verge, May 24, 2018

Each Echo maintains a log of its operations, and one tech-savvy user decided to look through this log to find out how often the device wakes itself up “accidentally.” The answer turns out to be “several times a day, for no obvious reason.”

“Yes, Alexa Is Recording Mundane Details of Your Life, and It's Creepy as Hell”
Rachel Metz, MIT Technology Review, May 25, 2018

I started wondering: what is it picking up on at my house when we're not talking to it directly?

So I checked my Alexa history (you can do that through the “settings” portion of the Amazon Alexa smartphone app) to see what kinds of things it recorded without my knowledge.

That's when the hairs on the back of my neck started to stand up. …

It's heard me complain to my dad about something work-related, chide my toddler about eating dinner, and talk to my husband — the kinds of normal, everyday things you say at home when you think no one else is listening. …

I invited Alexa into our living room to make it easier to listen to Pandora and occasionally check the weather, not to keep a log of intimate family details or record my kid saying “Mommy, we going car” and forward it to Amazon's cloud storage.

My guess is that the sampling is not really accidental, but reflects Amazon's desire to collect additional data about its customers. I suppose that the primary goal is to improve the Echo's voice recognition by getting a large enough data set for the machine-learning techniques to work a little more reliably. On the other hand, Amazon has many other possible uses for such a collection. The fact that the Echo sometimes mishears something as its wake word provides a convenient cover story.

#home-surveillance #Amazon-Echo #false-positives

How Alert Systems Fail


Last Saturday morning, the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency sent out an alert warning residents of Hawaii that they were about to be struck by a ballistic missile and advising them to take immediate shelter. They reinforced this message with the flat statement “This is not a drill.” The alert was sent to radio and television statements to be broadcast and texted to cellphone users throughout the state.

The alert was false. A HEMA employee was supposed to be conducting an internal test of the missile alert system. The employee was supposed to bring up a drop-down menu and select the “test missile alert” option. Instead, the employee selected the immediately following option, “missile alert.”

At that point, a confirmation box appeared, asking whether the user wished to proceed with the “missile alert” option. The employee confirmed the operation and the alert went out.

“Hawaii Missile Alert: How One Employee ‘Pushed the Wrong Button’ and Caused a Wave of Panic”
Amy B. Wang, The Washington Post, January 14, 2018

“How a Poor User Interface Design Caused the Hawaii Missile Scare”
Adam Shepherd, IT PRO, January 15, 2018

Hmmm. In my opinion, the error in user interface design was having a "missile alert" option on the drop-down menu in the first place.

#user-interfaces #false-positives

Hashtag index

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License.

Atom feed

John David Stone (

created June 1, 2014 · last revised December 10, 2018